Supervisors narrow search for county planning director

The search for a new planning director in Prince William County has been narrowed down to four candidates — with the help of a national executive search firm.

The Mercer Group of Atlanta identified 10 candidates, from which the county asked six to provide video interviews, and four will go on for further consideration.

“They have conducted that search, evaluated the candidates and gone through the first phase of the interview process of the top candidates; now we proceed to the second phase,” said Cleil Fitzwater, county Human Resources Director.

The second phase consists of face-to-face interviews with a panel of county officials to whittle the field and make a final recommendation to County Executive Craig S. Gerhart.

No hiring date has been set, but county officials hope to have the vacancy filled before the current planning director, Rick Lawson, retires in January.

The county has advertised in national magazines such as the American Planning Association. The salary range for the job is from $70,000 to $111,000, Fitzwater said.

The planning director is a pivotal job because the person acts as a key advisor in all aspects of planning, including rezonings, site and subdivision plans, and development permits. The director also guides the update of the county’s comprehensive plan, the main blueprint for land use countywide. The person hired will supervise a staff of 48 with a budget of $1.8 million.

“It’s an exciting time for the county. The arrival of major new businesses such as Eli Lilly and plans for redevelopment of U.S. 1 are bringing about a quantity and quality of development we haven’t seen here historically.

“We also have a new focus on our cultural and historic resources.”

The job will require someone with a blend of professional training, experience and vision, Lawson said. But in addition, this person will have to be able to deal with strongly held viewpoints by a very active citizenry. “It means walking between those lines and incorporating those points of view,” he said.

It’s a tough job, but one he has thoroughly enjoyed because the county has given him “a long leash” and the ability to be involved in a number of high-profile issues.

“Not every place lets you do that,” he said.

Video interviews have been used by the county in hiring in the past. A video firm posed the same set of questions, devised by the county, to each candidate, and the responses were made available to the county.

“We do this, quite frankly, because it saves us money,” Fitzwater said. “If you have people living in Seattle or San Diego, it’s a whole lot less for us as a potential employer than paying lodging and expenses and flying them back.” Several county employees, including one planner from Australia were hired this way, Fitzwater said.

Staff writer Diane Freda can be reached at (703) 878-4723.

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