WENATCHEE — Deanna Walter’s time in the position wasn’t supposed to be permanent. She had been appointed interim director twice before, but this time was different.
“I’m part of a family and another department needed help, so I’m going to go help,” said Walter, Chelan County Assessor, amidst tears Wednesday in her soon-to-be former office.
Walter is moving across Washington Street in Wenatchee and into a new office April 1 when she becomes director of Chelan County Community Development. Walter said that she had never imagined taking up the position “in a million years.”
“I made it very clear from the beginning,” Walter said. “My job is to transition, reorganize the department get it set up for your new director and then come back over (to the assessor’s office).”
But after her decade-long career as assessor, she felt the department was in a good place for her to help lead a department in need. Despite her confidence though, the idea of departing from the assessor’s office is an emotional topic for Walter.
“I felt like no matter what decision I made, I was abandoning an office,” she said. “I had to get to the point where I felt comfortable that this office is so solid that it afforded me the opportunity to go help that office. So I’m going to get that office as solid as this one.”
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Walter has been the county assessor since 2011 and was reelected last year, but will step down from her elected position on March 31.
The Chelan County Commission appointed Walter to interim community development director in March 2022 when Jim Brown resigned from the position. She had served as interim director on two other occasions from 2002 to 2005 and then again in March 2020 until Brown was hired in April 2020.
Her full-time role as community development director was announced March 13.
Since 2010, the community development department has had at least six directors or interim directors. Brown cited a worsening relationship with a county commissioner as a major reason for leaving the position.
Along with high turnover, the community development has been embroiled in several lawsuits in the last few of years.
Walter described the position as potentially being “highly political” which could account for the turnover.
“There have been influences — community or political influences — that have been able to basically dictate how the department was going to be run, and it was different with every new face in there,” she said.
Walter’s goal is to take the “politics” out of the office while operating the department transparently and applying the county’s code consistently.
“There’s going to be a few people uncomfortable with that,” she said. “Times change, leadership changes, but something that should never change is the consistency and the predictability and the application of the code. I keep hearing about past practice. Well, if we’ve done it incorrectly in the past, we’re not going to continue.”
The community development director is in charge of the administration and enforcement of the county’s building, fire, residential and plumbing codes. It is also responsible for regulating land and shoreline development.
The department also implements policy decisions directed by the commissioners if, for example, certain aspects of the code are not serving the public as intended and need to be changed.
But community development has garnered a notorious reputation in the last couple of years as the “office of community denial,” Walter said.
Walter said she wants to change this perception and heavily focus on customer service. But she also clarified that “customer service doesn’t always mean customer satisfaction.”
The biggest challenge ahead of them, other than the public’s perception of the department, will be ensuring that the department and staff are stable.
Walter said she thinks the department is heading in the right direction with the addition of new planners, but the department still has numerous vacant, top positions like building official and assistant director.
“I’d love to see within a couple of years (the department) not continuing to be a training ground for people to move on to other jurisdictions,” she said. “I think a good work environment plays into that a lot.”
As director, Walter said she would be very protective of staff as she’s done in the assessor’s office. “My job is to take that heat,” she said. “If you have a problem with a staff member, that’s on my shoulders. Nobody gets to be mean to staff.”
The process of getting permits or addressing land-use-related matters has and could be contentious, but Walter said she understands the department becomes a conduit for some of that anger and frustration.
“As long as we understand that, you can usually just have a civil conversation with people,” she said. “We’re not always going to agree, but we better always be civil.”
Walter said she’s already making changes since becoming interim director and expects the transition to be as “seamless” as a transition can be.
Staff reports, for example, will no longer provide a recommendation on whether to approve the application when presenting to the Chelan County Hearing Examiner.
“We don’t want to be influencing the decision because there’s still a public hearing to be held,” Walter said. “That shouldn’t be our role.”