For the third time this year, a top leadership position in Flathead County is changing hands.
Mark Mussman, the county’s director of planning and zoning, will be stepping down in July after six years running the department. Mussman’s departure follows the March retirement of Jed Fisher, head of the county’s parks and recreation department, while longtime county Administrator Mike Pence officially handed over the reins to his successor this month.
“It was just time, I think,” Mussman told the Beacon. “We acquired a property in Indiana a couple of years ago and my wife got a job at a local high school there. We’re been planning to move back there for some time.”
Mussman has a history in Indiana, having served as the planning director of Huntington County for three years before coming to Montana. He previously worked for seven years in Kootenai County, Idaho, and a few years in Fairbanks, Alaska.
As planning director, Mussman oversaw the planning staff, advised local land-use advisory committees as well as the county’s planning board and board of adjustment, and served as the link between the county commissioners and the planning and zoning department.
Over his six-year tenure, Mussman has been on the frontlines dealing with growth in the Flathead Valley.
“We’ve experienced slow but steady growth, until the bigger part of the surge that has happened recently,” Mussman said.
Mussman credits the staff at the planning department for ensuring all processes proceed smoothly.
“They are just highly dedicated and professional and have made my job so much easier,” he said. “I think the highlight of my time here is the staff that is here and will remain when I leave.”
Being one of the valley’s few visibly public figures in the world of zoning has led to some negative interactions with community members who have disagreed with Mussman’s interpretations of regulations or decisions by the department or board, and while that may have gotten to him early in his career, he knows it’s part of the work.
“If you take a job like this and you don’t expect pushback, unhappy folks and some misguided accusations, quite frankly you’re in the wrong line of work,” Mussman said. “When we hear those kinds of things, it’s just from people who are trying to take out their frustrations however they see fit. You can’t let it get to you.”
For the next person who takes over the position, Mussman says one main challenge will be to understand that running a planning department in a jurisdiction like Flathead County is different than in a city planning department, even one the size of Kalispell.
“It’s not like doing urban planning,” he said. “It’s a lot of managing the folks we serve, helping them understand the hurdles we face in helping them and figuring out how to come up with the plans and strategies and solutions.”
The county posted the planning director job last month, with an initial closing date of June 14, but that is likely to be extended until a larger pool of applicants is available. The starting salary for the position is listed at around $80,500.
Mussman doesn’t intend to drift into retirement yet. He wants to stay in the public sector, preferably in another planning department, but would like to be in a lower-level position now.
“I want to keep working in a rural setting; I feel that is my forte,” he said. “But I would love to not be in charge anymore.”
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