WALLA WALLA -- After nearly a decade in the employment of Walla Walla County, the head of the Department of Human Services is leaving to pursue a "passion for working with the psychology of organizations and individuals in private practice."
Sharon Saffer gave her resignation, effective Oct. 1, to the Walla Walla County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, officials said.
In a prepared statement, Saffer said she is "eager to focus on an opportunity that most people don't get to experience, that is to work alongside my son in a business we have developed and which he has been diligently building awaiting my participation."
She called leaving her position "bittersweet," but expressed ease at leaving the system in good shape and in good hands.
Saffer came on board at the agency in 2000 and assumed leadership in February of 2001, replacing outgoing director Margaret Schacht.
The department is charged with providing intervention, support services and financial oversight to county-affiliated mental health, developmental disabilities and chemical dependency services. That's done through a combination of direct and contracted programs in the county.
In her time at the helm, Saffer is credited as having been a negotiator of tricky budget situations and for bringing state and federal money to pay for programs to the county table, according to a press release from county commissioners.
"Sharon has demonstrated her personal commitment to the provision of high-quality services for the varied and many needs of our local community, and we will miss her dedication to the needs of our citizens and the county department's mission," said commission Chairman Greg Tompkins.
A search for a replacement will begin immediately, although the geographical scope of that effort has not been decided yet. Expert help will be sought to determine if the job description should be sent out to blanket the West Coast, Tompkins said Wednesday afternoon.
Whoever lands the position will need an understanding of the importance of providing good mental-health services within the community, noted city police Chief Chuck Fulton. His department and officers are often affected by the state of mental-health and substance-abuse services in the area, he said.
In recent years, the Department of Human Services has not always answered the needs of the population here, party due to internal staff and administrative problems, Fulton feels.
"It's probably time for a change and I look forward to that. Not only for my department but for the community. (DHS) is such an important department that everyone needs to be on board and understanding of all the challenges ... so that we can work on them together."
Kay Maxfield, director of Rising Sun Clubhouse, expressed similar sentiments. The clubhouse serves those living with mental illness; its clients are dependant on a well-functioning government agency to support and supplement what Rising Sun offers, she said.
"What we are hoping to get is someone who has great skills in bringing all the community agencies together, to make them understand they are an important part in the continuum of care."
Those local social-service providers are important players and a director of DHS will need to understand and acknowledge their value, Maxwell said.
Keeping administrative bloat and employee-turnover rates down are also skills the new administrator needs to bring to the table, she added.
He is hopeful county commissioners will find a way to include input from agency heads and mental health care consumers when choosing a new director, Fulton said. "They are affected by DHS and they need to be part of the future of that department."