Heidi Solano, operations manager at Bellingham planning firm The RJ Group, is Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis’ top choice for the city’s next planning director.
The planning director position has been vacant since June, when Amy Harksell left citing allegations of gender and age discrimination by City Administrator Mike Martin. Harksell had been with the city for 24 years.
Korthuis announced Solano as his top choice for the position last month. The City Council will have to approve the decision with a vote, which is scheduled for Oct. 17, Martin said in an email. Solano’s tentative start date is Oct. 19, Martin said.
Solano’s starting annual salary will be $76,649, according to City Clerk Pam Brown.
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Solano, 39, of Everson, graduated from Lynden Christian High School in 1995 before going to Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. She then received a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Wisconsin–Madison before spending time in the landscape and design industry in Michigan.
Solano then moved to Coconut Creek, Florida, where she worked in that city’s planning department for seven years. She’s been at The RJ Group for about a year, she said.
The Lynden position felt like a natural next step, Solano said. Having grown up in a family that includes Lynden-area farmers, she said she already had a good idea of what the city’s priorities are.
“It really feels like a culmination of my experience, but I also have a heart for city planning,” she said. “I know that there’s a lot of entrepreneurs from Lynden and the city has been supportive of its small-business growth. I’ll do whatever I can to help businesses that have started and flourished in the city of Lynden.”
Korthuis said Thursday, Oct. 6, that Solano stood out from the city’s two other finalists after her panel discussions with city administration, the council and community members.
“One of the things that we liked about Heidi is she has worked both sides of the counter,” Korthuis said, referring to Solano’s time in both the private and public sectors.
Korthuis’ choice comes several weeks after Harksell and two other former female department heads filed a lawsuit in Whatcom County Superior Court against Martin, Korthuis and the city. The lawsuit accuses Martin of creating a hostile work environment by treating the women less favorably than their male counterparts.
Sirke Salminen, the former finance director who left for the same position at the city of Ferndale in mid September, also mentioned Martin’s behavior in her resignation letter. Salminen is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
When asked if Korthuis had any reservations about putting Solano under Martin’s supervision, he said: “None whatsoever.” He declined to explain further.
Solano said she’s aware of the accusations against Martin, but is approaching the job with an open mind.
“There’s no way that I could comment on all the details because nobody has all of that information,” she said. “I’m moving into the position open-minded and I would do everything I can to foster a positive work environment.”