Flathead County is close to hiring a new administrator to oversee most aspects of the county’s operations.
The current county administrator, Mike Pence, announced his retirement last fall after serving in the role for 16 years. He originally planned to step down at the end of March, but the county extended his contract through May 31 to better fit with hiring timeline.
The county hired California-based recruiting firm, CPS HR Consulting, to help in the nationwide search and 67 applications were received, according to the county’s human resource director, Tammy Skramovsky. The pool was whittled down to four candidates that were brought in for interviews on March 30.
Daniel Sabolsky, Pat Oman, Elishia Hayes and Pete Melnick sat for 30-minute interviews with the commissioners on Tuesday where they were asked about management styles, how to handle disciplinary processes and how politics factors in to their position.
“There were four highly qualified and talended candidates that we interviewed,” commissioner Brad Abell said. “I don’t think we’ll have any problem filling the role with someone from this group.”
Sabolsky interviewed before the commissioners first. He attended Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he earned a master’s in public administration.
He worked as an executive director for an economic development agency in several cities and counties in Ohio, also working at Clydescope Economic Development, a consulting firm in Ohio. In 2016 he relocated to Montana to serve as the town manager of West Yellowstone.
Sabolsky described his areas of expertise in finance and budgeting, economic development planning and project management.
“Over the years I’ve developed a knack to find creative solutions to governmental issues that were typically, we said, ‘well, this can’t be done or, you know, boy, this would be difficult to accomplish,’” Sabolsky said. “I am able to sit down, break down those issues and work closely with my staff to develop solutions.”
He mentioned the issues with affordable housing in the Flathead as a barrier for attracting entry-level workers and touted the development of a nonprofit daycare in West Yellowstone as one of his biggest accomplishments.
Sabolsky said he has managed upwards of 40 employees and overseen a budget of $17 million, significantly less than Flathead County’s nearly $120 million budget.
“But I always say to people, whether you have $100 bicycle, or you have a $5,000 bicycle, you ride it the same way,” he said.
Pat Oman has spent more than 20 years in government administration at the city, county and regional level, most recently serving as the county administrator for Mille Lacs county in Minnesota where he managed 300 employees and 10 department heads with an operating budget of $60 million.
Oman suddenly resigned his position in Mille Lacs County on Jan. 31. The county commissioners there considered his departure regretful, stating, “he was here all the time and was a workaholic and has certainly done things over the years here for us that would put him in good standing.”
Describing his management style as highly personal, Oman emphasized his belief in individual meetings with department heads and two-way feedback.
“There needs to be an environment where they are able to speak freely,” he said. “I’m very interested in knowing the issues that are occurring in their department with their staff and where they’re at with their budgets.”
Oman drew similarities between his former county and Flathead having large swaths of land that is non-taxable as state and federal land and unable to be developed. Mille Lacs County includes state forests, several wildlife management areas and tribal land.
He also highlighted the technological advances he oversaw at the county, where Cares Act money was leveraged to implement a $1.3 million technology overhaul to allow all county employees to work from home and all county residents to access broadband.
Alishia Hayes has worked for Humboldt County, California for the last 10 years, working her way up from a revenue recovery officer to the assistant county administrative officer. In her current role, she essentially serves as the county’s financial officer overseeing a budget of nearly $500 million.
Humbolt County operates with a five-member board, as opposed to Flathead’s three-member commission, and Hayes said it was often a two-two split with a center swing vote that meant she had to be understanding of all viewpoints and political affiliations.
“I have great relationships with all of them, some of them align with me on a political spectrum, some of them do not but I am always respectful,” Hayes said. “My job is to ensure that they have the tools and the resources they have to make their decisions.”
The commissioners asked about the budget size difference between the two organizations, considering that the county populations are similar in size.
“My organization is more based on a socialist mentality. It’s heavy in services for the community and with that comes mandates that come down from the state, and state and federal dollars, which make up about half of our budget,” She said. “Our Department of Health and Human Services alone is more than half of our overall county budget. So I recognize that we operate very, very differently.”
While Hayes admitted a transition to a minimalist, capitalist government system would be a change, she said she thought own value system aligned more closely with that of Flathead County.
The final interview was with Pete Melnick, a 25 year veteran of the Coast Guard serving as a flight instructor and in positions of strategic communications, human resources and recruitment. He most recently was an advisor to the assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security.
“I [see this as] an opportunity to continue to serve. That is what I do it just in a different capacity— instead of serving through military service, I get to serve through public service,” Melnick said.
Melnick said his work in an HR role had the most relevant experience to the county administrator position. He said that around 10 people reported directly to him and oversaw a $26 million operating budget as well as a payroll account that was roughly $5 billion.
When asked about navigating the political sphere, Melnick demurred citing that as a member of the military, he was apolitical.
“We serve the president United States regardless of what party, he or she is in… and that’s how I would view my tenure here,” Melnick said. “My role here is to give you the best advice, data that you need to make your decisions, and then work with you to figure out what your intent is and how we can execute it quickly, efficiently, and that best serves the communities of Flathead County.”
“I’m not going to get involved in politics, it’s just not my nature,” he continued. “And if I’m asked to, I will recuse myself from those types of discussions.”
The county administrator serves as the lynchpin between the commissioners and 20 department heads, and oversees the fiscal management of the county. The proposed salary for the position is negotiable up to $128,000.
The advertisement for the position described a search for “a visionary fiscal conservative leader who embraces the stability of [the] organization and will bring a steady hand to its management.”
Commissioner Abel anticipates the commission will make a decision in the next week.
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