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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Stenger Questions Need for Three New Positions Created by Zimmerman

Assessor's latest two hires previously had worked for him.

August 03, 2011 - Recent hirings in county Assessor Jake Zimmerman's office have raised the eyebrows of a fellow Democrat: the head of the County Council.

Council Chairman Steve Stenger, D-south county, told the Call he questions the need for a trio of new leadership positions in Zimmerman's department as none of them directly relate to property assessment. Stenger also is skeptical of how those jobs were filled. All three new employees either have worked for Zimmerman or have Democratic ties, and Stenger characterized them as "patronage-slash-political hires."

"I don't approve of the hiring practices in the assessor's office," Stenger said last week. "Not one of the individuals hired is qualified to assess homes."

Zimmerman contends the positions are key to improving accountability and customer service in the assessor's office. Politics were not at play as all job candidates went through a multistep merit-based hiring process, he said.

Voters last August and November approved county and statewide ballot measures, respectively, to make the county assessor an elective position. Zimmerman, a former Democratic state representative, won election in April over the Republican nominee, real estate agent L.K. "Chip" Wood. Zimmerman's term runs through Dec. 31, 2014.

"I am doing nothing more than keeping a campaign promise here to hire people who are going to build accountability," Zimmerman told the Call on Monday in reference to the three new positions. "And if the charge against me is that I've hired people that I trust, hired people that I know are good at that job: Guilty."

The first of those hirings was made last month when Zimmerman announced he'd brought on board Sara Howard as deputy assessor and director of external affairs at an annual salary of $89,000. Howard previously has worked for several Democratic politicians and most recently was campaign spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

Zimmerman, whose salary is $95,000 per year, said Monday he recently filled the other two positions. Chalana Oliver, a lawyer who was the political director for Zimmerman's assessor campaign, was hired as director of policy review and community engagement, with an annual salary of $46,760.

"Her principal job is going to be the liaison to folks who have an interest in the assessment process like community leaders, city council members, school boards, fire boards, that sort of thing," Zimmerman said. "That's work she has done for me before, and I have a lot of confidence in her ability to do it."

Anna Gourdin, Zimmerman's former legislative assistant in Jefferson City, was hired as constituent services manager at $36,000 a year.

The job description states the position "will take a leadership role in helping develop systems to triage incoming constituent inquires/complaints/needs and, direct them to the correct internal staff members and will act as the final constituent service ambassador for constituents who remain frustrated after going through the office's normal customer service channels."

Gourdin also will manage the "public and private schedule for the assessor and other senior staff in the office," according to the description.

"I have great confidence in (Anna's) customer service skills and her scheduling skills, which is the essential job of that position," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman has said at some point he also will hire a "chief administrative manager," a position that will be "more focused on internal personnel matters and making sure that we're getting the most for the taxpayers' dollar in terms of our staff resources."

But Stenger said taxpayers "should be ensured their dollars are spent wisely and not on unneeded positions" — especially in the office that determines the property values on which county taxing entities base their tax rates, he added.

Stenger said that when voters chose to make the assessor an elected position, they "did not contemplate an office staffed with patronage-slash-political hires."

"I believe that the jobs are beyond the scope of what was and is intended for the office of St. Louis County assessor ...," he said. "The titles speak for themselves."

Zimmerman in a previous interview said he "did not get into this business for the joy of giving jobs to people that I like." He said Monday that as part of the merit hiring process, the county personnel department whittled down the list of job applicants and presented him with the top qualified candidates, whom Zimmerman then interviewed.

"In fact for what it's worth, I'm aware that there were other folks who had worked on my campaign or had Democratic political connections and so forth who never made it past that first step, and that's as it should be," he said.

But it's no coincidence that people who've worked for him in the past got the jobs, he added.

"I'm like any employer," Zimmerman said. "If you give me three equally qualified candidates to choose from and one of them has worked for me for three years, it's a pretty safe bet which one I know and trust and have a high level of confidence in."

Stenger said the assessor's office first and foremost should be "focused on improving the assessment process to make it more accurate." He questioned why current personnel couldn't handle the duties of the new hires.

"There are 170 people working in the assessor's office, working to assess homes in St. Louis County. The first question I have is cannot a portion of those individuals be in charge of communicating with the public?" Stenger said, adding that while many area businesses are tightening their belts in the current economy, "the assessor's office seems to be expanding. That doesn't go along with rational thought."

Those 170 employees "are trained to look at houses," Zimmerman said. "Those folks aren't trained to build a customer service and a community engagement plan and because of that, while I think this office has done a reasonably good job looking at houses over the years, it hasn't historically been well-regarded for its ability to deal with taxpayers in St. Louis County."

Zimmerman contended the recent hirings wouldn't be scrutinized as closely had he been elected to an executive position that already existed, such as state treasurer.

"No one would bat an eye at the idea that the deputy treasurer, the chief of staff and perhaps a couple of other staff people in that office would come and go with the elected official and would be folks whose job was to make sure that that elected official implemented their mission," he said.

"The difference is that I'm inheriting something that has been a bureaucracy ... and its job hasn't been accountability," Zimmerman said. "So while there's lots of talented staff around here, there's nobody that's had that as their mission.

"My job is to bring in people that I trust and that I have absolute confidence in their ability to help make this office accountable to taxpayers. That's very different than looking at houses."

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