County shifts Gears into new slot

Newly appointed Kitsap County Adminstrator Cris Gears’ job will be quite different from that of his predecessor, as he has spent the last few months redefining its boundaries in a quest for increased efficiency.

Much of this has to do with streamlining the communications flow and relieving the county commissioners of operational minutiae.

“The commissioners have been spending a disproportionate amount of time dealing with administrative issues,” Gears said. “Employees who were having trouble with their supervisor would do directly to a commissioner, and this would complicate things. A commissioner should only get involved in an administrative matter if all other avenues have been exhausted.”

Gears takes over from Malcolm Fleming, who was hired in 1998. As the first person to hold that job, Fleming created a system in which he worked cooperatively with the commissioners on administrative issues.

In many cases, Fleming would act as a traffic cop between the commissioners, the staff and the public. And since the commissioners are ultimately accessible to all their constituents, people would approach them directly with a variety of problems and administrative concerns.

This was fine, Gears said, when the county had fewer than 100,000 residents and 200 employees. Today, however, the population approaches a quarter million and the county has 1,200 employees.

The commissioners need a different kind of traffic cop to allow them to do their jobs.

Approximately half of the county employees fall under Gears’ purview. The remainder work for elected offices — assessor, auditor, prosecuting attorney, courts, treasurer and sheriff.

“This is a cultural shift that could take a year,” Gears said. “The organization needs to operate like a good-sized business. We can no longer act like a Ma and Pa grocery store.”

Throughout, communication is the key.

“We need to help our customers understand who to call in order to get the service they need,” Gears said, “so they don’t spend time calling the administrators or the commissioners with things that are going to get shifted around. They need to call the people who can deliver.”

Gears said there will be no formal document to determine the direction, that it will evolve with time.

“When Malcolm came here seven years ago, the board never had an administrator,” Gears said. “They would delegate tasks to him as they saw the need. He would deal with issues one at a time. And this ended up confusing the department heads. They would send out four e-mails — to each commissioner and the administrator — and get four different answers. This was an incredibly inefficient way to govern.”

The strategy is to first determine what commissioners need to know and what they need for effective communication. They need to eliminate redundancies. And most importantly, the administrator needs to have the power to make decisions.

“When the commissioners first asked me to take this job and I agreed to do it until they found someone else, it surprised them,” Gears said. “They thought I would jump up and down and want to take it right away. But as a manager, I saw how the job wasn’t well-defined, so I wanted to clear up the expectations of the position before I committed myself. And the commissioners were open to the idea.”

Gears took over from Fleming in early March. Since then, he has met several times with the commissioners and other staff members to discuss the job’s redefinition. And it continues to be a work in progress.

As for Gears’ job description, he admits it continues to be “rather broad and rather vague. But we need to make it clear that it is the place from where we run the daily business of the county, to allow the commissioners to focus on the more important issues.”

He said the reorganization “doesn’t make the job easier, but it will be less complicated.”

Gears earns $110,000, which exceeds the salary of all three commissioners. He said Kitsap County public officials are underpaid when compared to the national average.

Gears said one of the areas where off-loading administrative duties will change the landscape is the commissioners’ relationship with other local governing bodies.

Gears, who last headed the Facilities, Parks and Recreation Department, said the county would soon recruit a search committee to fill his old job. He said it won’t be a problem to have no leader in place during the fair season.

“It will be the same as ever,” he said. “The staff will run things.”

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