Smith feeling right at home as Pitkin County manager
Hilary Smith’s first two days on her new job haven’t been too trying.
Her biggest challenge has been keeping her voice mail clear, sorting through scores of e-mails on her computer and figuring out where to put all the flowers she’s received.
“I didn’t have to make any tough decisions yet,” Smith said.
But that doesn’t mean she won’t be making them soon. Smith is Pitkin County’s new county manager, in charge of an organization with more than 230 employees.
She’s also in charge of helping the county commissioners organize their meetings every other week, providing the county’s top elected officials with the information they need to make decisions on policy and land use.
Asked if she came to the job with any grand designs in mind, Smith said no. “For now I’m going to take things slowly and see what kind of things are needed.”
Smith replaces Suzanne Konchan, who retired last month after serving five years as county manager. Smith was selected from a field of four finalists: Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority Director Tom Newland, Eagle County Assistant Manager George Roussos and John Hartzell, a county attorney and administrator from New York.
“I picked Hilary because she has incredible people skills,” said County Commissioner Patti Clapper. “You can’t learn people skills in a book, you have to be born with them, and she was born with them.”
Commissioner Shellie Roy had similar reasons for backing Smith. “When Hilary spoke in the interview, she didn’t talk about how she could solve our problems or how she could help us reach our goals. Instead, she spoke about how we could use the county staff to solve those problems and reach those goals,” Roy said.
Roy said she was also impressed with Smith’s thoughts about the role of the county commissioners. Smith told the interview panel that the commissioners’ skills and connections would be better utilized establishing ties with other government officials around the state, and communicating with constituents around the valley.
“She wants us to be a little more out there, in public, as front people for the county – which we should be,” Roy said.
Hilary Fletcher Smith’s ascent to the top job at Pitkin County has been as steady as it has been steep.
She was first hired by the county in 1988 as a receptionist and legal secretary in the county attorney’s office.
After a few years on the job, Smith noticed that the county lacked any kind of organized risk management program. So she came up with a proposal for managing the county’s risk and preventing unnecessary losses.
“There was no risk management department, so I got to create one from scratch,” Smith said.
In 1992, Smith was promoted from legal secretary to risk manager. Her work brought the county into compliance with federal laws that govern the workplace, established incident investigation procedures, created safety training programs for employees in each department and reviewed the county’s various insurance options.
Her modified duty program has gained national recognition. It saves the county on sick time and employee replacement costs by reassigning injured employees who want to work to positions that do not aggravate their injuries. If, for instance, an employee at the landfill broke an arm and was unable to perform manual labor, he might be reassigned to answer phones at the community development department.
Over the years, Smith estimates the county has saved about $1.5 million in insurance premiums and other costs because of its risk management programs.
In 1998, she was named assistant county manager. She replaced Newland, who was moving on to the top job at the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority. Her duties under Konchan included employee relations, policy analysis and budget review, among other things.
“What I learned most from Suzanne Konchan was how to do the job right, how to do it well,” Smith said.
What Smith didn’t say was whether her predecessor instructed her on how to manage a flood of congratulations and more than a half-dozen bouquets.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by everyone’s response. It’s great,” she said.
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.