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The city of Missoula has poached two high-ranking officials from Missoula County since May.

On Dec. 1, Steve Johnson stepped into the job of director of human resources for the city after resigning as chief operating officer for the county. He had 18 years under his belt with Missoula County.

Earlier, Dale Bickell left his job as chief administrative officer for the county to work for the CAO of the city as Central Services director. He started on May 5 after working 14 years with the county.

In crossing to City Hall, Bickell and Johnson both received moderate pay bumps, but both said the real draw was the chance to work on new projects. However, they also landed in positions that are arguably a step below the ones they had with Missoula County.

Mayor John Engen acted as headhunter. He said when the city's recruitment efforts for both those positions didn't work out – for different reasons – he picked up the phone and called professionals whose work he knew.

"I am ... always looking for talent and opportunities to make the city of Missoula's team stronger in any way I can," Engen said Monday. "And in the case of Dale and Steve, I think we've managed to bring a couple of top-notch, talented, committed public servants to our bench."

Missoula County HR director Patty Baumgart said she is proud other agencies want to recruit people who have risen in the ranks in Missoula County. Soon after the hires, though, she saw the mayor walking the halls of the county, and she jokingly reprimanded him.

"'You're not over here recruiting again, are you?'" Baumgart remembers saying. "He laughed and said, 'Don't you want to come over?' "

Commission Chairwoman Jean Curtiss said the resignations of two longtime officials represent a coincidence and not a retention problem. People generally like working for county government, and she said the departures made commissioners assess the professionals they still have – and how to best help them develop and advance as the guard changes in the future.

"It just made us realize we should look at who are the up-and-coming leaders and make sure we provide them with opportunities and training to step into new roles," Curtiss said.

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Both Bickell and Johnson said their new positions allow for advancement in the future, and Engen agreed. Current city CAO Bruce Bender has discussed a June retirement, and Engen said he wanted to find a candidate who could potentially step into the job.

"The CAO of the city of Missoula wears a lot of hats, in fact, wears the same hats I do in many ways, and also has to have a relationship with me that is solid," Engen said.

The skill set is specific, and Bickell brings it to the table, Engen said. The mayor also said he could see Johnson moving into the job of Central Services director in the transition.

Bickell, who worked as chief financial officer for the county before he was CAO, said new and interesting projects drew him to municipal government. He hadn't applied when the Central Services director position opened up, but the mayor gave him a call, and the "stout" job appealed to him.

In city government in particular, he's interested in working on the eminent domain case the city filed against Mountain Water Co. and owner the Carlyle Group.

"I think it's an important issue and doesn't come around very often," Bickell said.

The biggest change is working in a different form of government, he said. The county has three commissioners who do both policy and administrative work, but the Missoula City Council has 12 members, and they're legislators, not administrators.

"So we don't interact with them as much," Bickell said. "And it's really in those formal roles in committee meetings and public hearings (that) are really the interactions between staff and our elected officials. So that's a lot different."

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Johnson, too, said fresh and interesting projects brought him to the city. He worked for 15 years as HR director for the county and then three years as COO.

"It was a very difficult decision for me to make the change, but I think at this point in my career, I was just ready for a little shake-up and decided it would be fun to come to work in a different organization and get to know some different people and deal with some different issues," Johnson said.

In particular, he said, the city was looking for someone who had expertise in labor and labor relations, and a large part of his career has been working in those areas. The fact that two veteran county employees made the jump within months is more a matter of the timing of vacancies than anything else, Johnson said.

"It's hard to say how that timing happens sometimes, but I think it was more just a matter of that than anything," he said.

The most striking differences to Johnson are organizational ones. For instance, the county runs a detention center, while the city operates a fire department.

He said once he made his decision to leave, he didn't request the county provide him an incentive to stay – and, he joked, the county didn't give him one: "The county just gave me dirty looks and swore at me."

In fact, Curtiss said because the city and the county work together closely, the county's loss has pluses, too.

"They're going to do good work for the city, and that's a benefit for the county," Curtiss said.

She said commissioners talked with both men to see if the county could entice them to stay. However, she said Bickell saw some exciting challenges at this point in his career, and Johnson is getting closer to the end of his career.

"The city financially could offer more than we can," Curtiss said.

Bickell went from earning $114,483.20 in the county to $118,450, according to city and county HR departments; Johnson went from $109,324.80 to $115,000.

Their departures are made easier because of the groundwork they did while they were on the job, Curtiss said. She credited Bickell and the commissioners with putting new leadership in place and building a foundation for them, and she praised Johnson for building people up and investing in staff members already on board.

"They did such great work for the county and getting us to the place where we are," Curtiss said.

As part of the transition in the county, Chris Lounsbury takes the job of COO come Jan. 1. He's currently the director of the Office of Emergency Management.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.