Monday, January 17, 2022
Jan. 17, 2022

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Q&A: Checking in with Interim Clark County Manager Kathleen Otto

She replaced Henessee, stepping into role on cusp of pandemic

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter

When Kathleen Otto started as interim county manager earlier this year, she immediately had some urgent matters to address.

When County Manager Shawn Henessee resigned from his position March 13, Otto had worked about 3 1/2 years with the county as director of human resources and deputy county manager.

That same day, the Clark County Council appointed her to the interim role and declared a public health emergency due to COVID-19.

The Columbian recently sent questions to Otto about the first six months in her new role. A spokeswoman forwarded her responses through email.

The comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

You started in your current role on March 13. Considering the timing (appointment to the position immediately after a resignation) and the circumstances (COVID-19), is it fair to assume that it was an unusual job transition? Can you describe what that transition was like, including some of the challenges you faced and any memorable moments from your first few days on the job?

I would agree the transition wasn’t a typical job transition. With that said, everything happened at the same time. I’m truly proud of the staff and how quickly we responded to make sure our employees were safe and even though it looks different, we were able to provide necessary services. In a sense I believe we have come closer as a county — for example, leadership from all departments (elected and nonelected departments) have been meeting via phone every morning since everything changed to share the latest information and provide guidance on next steps. Communication has been key and sometimes just hearing the “good mornings” on the phone was enough to set the right tone for the day.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak impacted your daily responsibilities? On a given day, how much different is the job from what it would have been a year ago?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyone’s daily responsibilities. For example, in a “typical” year we would be discussing the 2021 budget (as we are now). We also have been discussing the 2020 budget from the first week, watching revenues, expenses, cash flow, etc., to make sure we have plans in place to adjust as necessary. We are also continually trying to obtain additional CARES Act funding to assist with the ongoing needs of the pandemic — which could include public health response, community services, economic and business support and other policy items determined by the council. Other examples are tied to personnel. Whether employees working from home or instituting new safety protocols for those at work, we implemented technology changes to ensure public services continued while maintaining the safety of our employees and constituents.

In May, the county was projecting between $5 million and $13 million in lost general-fund revenue as a result of COVID-19 and the economic shutdowns that followed. Where does that estimate stand now? Also, what general details can you provide about how it might impact the 2021 budget?

I’m cautiously optimistic we will be able to successfully balance the budget for 2020. We also have contingency plans in place in the event we see a significant decrease in sales tax revenues and other revenues due to the pandemic.

As for the 2021 budget, we are currently budgeting revenues to be flat and have asked departments to submit up to 8-percent reduction scenarios for the general fund. As we move through the budget process as well as obtain more financial data, we’ll be able to strategically make decisions for the 2021 budget.

An internal audit — based on contract samples from 2017 and 2018 and released in January — found numerous flaws in how the county maintains contracts. County officials said that it would take significant time to develop, implement and manage a full-time program to manage the contracts. Where is the county in that process? Is the system fully operational, or when do you expect that it might be?

Expectations have been established (and are available in the written response to the internal audit). The county was in the midst of a recruitment for a contracts manager position to take the lead on implementing necessary changes when the pandemic started. This position was put on hold at that time. However, this is still a top priority and we will be moving forward in the near future with that recruitment.

In the past few months, discussion has increased, both nationally and locally, about workplace diversity and inclusion. What is county leadership currently doing to promote this, and is there anything that you believe the county could improve upon or add to its efforts in this regard?

While we have a written commitment in policy, county leadership recommitted to our staff both verbally and in writing our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. That commitment is only the first step. We have instituted a mandatory all-staff diversity, equity and inclusion training — this training will continue at a minimum annually. I have also personally met with several employee groups and individuals in the county to hear their perspectives, hopes and realities. I had the privilege to participate in the listening sessions held with the council and community members. I am currently reviewing resources to ensure the county is doing, or will do, what we have committed to. More work is forthcoming.

Columbian county government and small cities reporter