Clackamas County's Gary Schmidt: 'Focus and be disciplined'
As part of an ongoing series called "Checking In," Pamplin Media Group spoke with Clackamas County Administrator Gary Schmidt about how the county's role has been impacted by the COVID-19 health crisis and the new challenges in providing services presented by the pandemic.
Parts of this conversation have been edited for clarity.
Even before the pandemic hit, the county faced many public issues that county officials had the responsibility of addressing. On a personal and/or professional level, how have you approached dealing with the past year-plus as that list of responsibilities has grown?
Of course, this has been quite a year for everyone across the entire world. In Clackamas County, the pandemic has been the biggest challenge, but as you know, we had wildfires last September and the ice storm in February, so we had three active emergency declarations at one time. It has been a challenge, but it really has helped staff to focus on what is most important, to serve the public of Clackamas County and especially its most vulnerable residents. I guess my perspective is, the staff has learned that we have to focus and be disciplined and I try to help the board make good decisions and spend our money wisely. Because when in a state of emergency, nothing else matters — we have to focus on what is most critical at this moment in time to help the public, and I think that's what the staff and I have tried to do during the past year is to really focus on what's most important to the community, and we've done our best to keep that focus in the forefront.
At times, the differing opinions held by county residents are reflected among the five commissioners, which can lead to disagreements in the decision-making process. As administrator, what role do you play in facilitating compromise?
The county commissioners, of course, are elected by the public and are the policymakers for Clackamas County on behalf of the public. As county administrator, my job is to implement their policy direction and help make sure the board has all the information they need to make effective decisions. When I'm sitting with them at the table, if I hear or witness them struggling because they don't feel they have the information that they need, or I can tell by the questions they're asking they may need more information, I will either insert myself on the spot, or sometimes I'll text some of the directors saying, "Hey, help me answer this," or I'll call someone to the table on Zoom to step in. Often when there's a conflict, they don't have the information they need, so that's on me and staff to make sure they have it.
After policy sessions, you have been asking staff to repeat back what the commissioners have directed. Has that practice been effective in achieving the intended outcome?
Yes, I used to do that before the pandemic as well. I would, at the end of every policy session, ask staff to please share back what the commissioners just directed us to do and then if there was any misunderstanding, the commissioners could immediately on the spot correct it or update it. Most of the recent sessions since I said I would do that have been informational only, so I have not had to ask that question. But I have asked that when there is a policy decision made and Chair (Tootie) Smith will do it too. And we'll continue to do that to help make sure we're following the direction of board.
With such a confluence of public issues impacting the county at the moment, what big projects should residents be tuned into?
Our board has a strategic plan in Clackamas County, we call it Performance Clackamas. The commissioners have agreed on 10 priorities they want to focus on right now and they include housing and reducing homelessness, which involves working with our regional partners on the Supportive Housing Services program. We have a Veteran's Village to support homeless veterans and that's been a huge success for almost four years now. Related to the housing goal, a priority is helping businesses and economic growth within our county, trying to create a business-friendly environment. A new board goal the commissioners created this year is to support farmers and food production on agricultural land. We had to make budget reductions in Clackamas County the last two fiscal years and we have a stable sustainable budget now, but I have to make sure the board has all the information they need to make good budgeting decisions so they spend the public's dollars wisely. We're working on building two new libraries in Gladstone and Oak Lodge and we're working on the new county courthouse, because our current one is in dire need of replacement. Broadband expansion, we've had an ongoing program for almost 10 years called Clackamas Broadband Exchange, it is helping provide high-speed internet fiber called the fiber backbone, so we're now be able to expand that thanks to the federal (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars to support underserved communities in the county that don't have high speed internet. And then, of course, pandemic response, the pandemic's changing everyday it seems and how we can help support those within the county. Of the ARPA funds the county has been allocated, a total of $80 million from the federal government, we've received $40 million of that right now and commissioners have allocated some of that, but we're on hold until the United States Treasury offers final guidance on how to spend those funds. If we don't spend them appropriately, then we have to repay them to the federal government and Clackamas County does not have $80 million laying around. Therefore, I've encouraged the board, let's be very fiscally frugal and wait until we have absolute final guidance, which we is coming any day now, we haven't gotten it yet.
In dealing with so many concurrent issues, what are you most proud of in terms of how the county has been able to come together and get things done?
When the pandemic first began last year, it was very frightening and there was incredible uncertainty. None of us knew what was going to happen or the seriousness and severity of how the pandemic would grow. I'm very grateful and impressed that our employees and last year's board, in my view, became incredibly focused, overnight, on how to protect the people of Clackamas County, how to protect our employees to be safe and healthy, while still providing service to the public. Clackamas County offices did close to the public for a short period of time last March through May. We didn't stop services, we quickly pivoted to online and digital services. Then our building opened at the beginning of June 2020 and we have not closed since, we've been open this entire time for the public. Most employees have worked remotely, but have been slowly coming back to the office. Many of our critical services — the sheriff's office, our 911 Center, our roads crew, our health clinics, wastewater technicians and many others — they worked the whole time, they never stopped, they never went home, they kept doing their job to support the public. So I'm most proud that we focused, we had clarity of thought and direction to focus on what was most important, to make sure everyone got what they needed. And has continued since, our new board has been focused on that as well, just rising to the occasion and being ready and able and willing to do what we needed to do to help take care of the public.
Is there anything I missed, or anything you wished I'd asked about? If not, is there anything else you'd like to communicate to county residents?
I would simply say, we have 2,500 employees in Clackamas County, many of us live in the county, I do, and many other employees do as well. But all of us chose to work in the public sector because we care about people, we care about serving people, and we care about our community. So I'd love for the public to know that all 2,500 employees, no matter what they do, we all work very, very hard every day to serve the public of Clackamas County. And we help support our Board of County Commissioners, who the voters chose to represent them. So we all work together to help serve and make everyone's lives, we hope, just a little bit better.
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