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An interim appointment to one of Sonoma County government's most embattled jobs — transportation and public works director — could go to two people under a proposal to be considered today by the county Board of Supervisors.

The unusual move comes after last month's retirement of Phil Demery, who led the department for more than five years.

Under the proposal, two of Demery's deputies, Susan Klassen and Tom O'Kane, temporarily would replace him. Both would get a temporary 5 percent raise, increasing their monthly salary to $13,998, or about $168,000 a year.

County officials said they expect the board to appoint a permanent successor in late February or March.

Klassen and O'Kane have applied for the director's position, which pays $152,359.76 to $185,190.16 a year. The application period closed Monday, and the county is paying an executive search firm $25,000 to conduct a nationwide recruitment process.

County Administrator Veronica Ferguson defended that expenditure, saying it would improve the pool of candidates that Klassen and O'Kane will compete against. The same practice was used for recent managerial selections overseeing county legal, agriculture and personnel departments, she said.

"It enables us to know we hired the best person for the job," she said.

Ferguson also defended the dual interim appointment, a rare but not unprecedented move.

The county would have spent less promoting just one official on an interim basis, she acknowledged. But it also could have spent more by hiring an outsider to run the department for several months, she said.

"We actually believe we'll be saving money this way," she said.

She said both officials have the confidence and support of county elected and administrative leaders.

"We believe both of them are doing a great job and wanted to acknowledge that and support them," she said.

Klassen and O'Kane said Monday they thought the arrangement would work out.

Klassen, 53, a 27-year veteran of the department, will continue to oversee the department's refuse, transit and airport divisions as well as administrative services.

O'Kane, 65, who joined the department four and a half years ago, will continue to oversee road maintenance, traffic and lighting, land development and air quality. He previously led county and city public works departments in Florida and Virginia.

The Sonoma County department has been a target of public criticism for the past two years as the county has settled on a controversial triage plan to dedicate its reduced long-term road-maintenance dollars to only about 14 percent of the 1,382-mile county-maintained road network.

Demery was a cool-headed figure in that scrum, taking heat from angry residents concerned about deteriorating roads while working with supervisors to increase the county's annual commitment to pavement upkeep.

With state gas tax receipts — the main source of maintenance money — flat for years now, county supervisors have acknowledged some form of local tax increase may be needed to address the maintenance backlog, estimated at more than $920 million over 10 years.

The next public works director likely will be a lead official in delivering that message.

Another pending issue is the proposed 30-year lease over operations at the county landfill, one of the largest business decisions the county has made in years if not decades.

That deal could come to the board in late January or February, before the permanent director is chosen.

Other key projects include expansion of the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, replacement of aging bridges and consolidation of several dozen lighting districts throughout the county.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.