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Compromise ends impasse

County government employees watching live on television monitors were literally bent double with laughter, when they were not shaking their heads.

"I have to work for them," one said in amused disbelief.

By early afternoon, word had spread through the streets of downtown and into law offices and restaurants: A bickering County Commission, responsible for a $300-million budget and the welfare of 150,000 residents, could not choose one among their number as chairperson.

The deadlock was so great that until late in Tuesday's meeting, it appeared as if current County Commission Chairwoman Nancy Robinson, who Thursday announced she had switched from Democrat to Republican, would remain in charge for another month until the board could hold a workshop on better ways to organize itself.

As entertaining to county employees as such a workshop may have been, the prospect was avoided when County Commissioner Diane Rowden, in a gesture meant to create some harmony from the discord, bowed out of the race to succeed Robinson and nominated Robert Schenck. He was unanimously approved.

Rowden will enter her fourth year on the board as vice chairwoman, a streak she jokes may be a record. Chris Kingsley was selected as second vice chairman. As part of the final arrangement, Rowden will succeed Schenck in 2006.

Vastly expanded power was not at stake. The chair runs board meetings, helps create weekly agendas with the county administrator and serves as the commission's figurehead for a year.

Repeatedly, Democratic County Commissioner Chris Kingsley nominated fellow Democrat Rowden for the post, only to see her defeated by three votes to two. Likewise, Robinson repeatedly nominated her fellow GOP member Schenck, who also failed to gain a majority of votes.

Neither Rowden nor Kingsley would break ranks and vote for Schenck, while Robinson and Schenck offered no votes for Rowden.

The spoiler in the process was County Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who could have decided the matter but argued that the process of selecting a chairman forced board members to vote against one another, creating ill will.

Robinson defended the approach, saying it had not caused bruised feelings or conflicts in the past.

"To deny that there has never been a problem with egos on this board is a lot of crap," said Stabins, speaking after Robinson.

Stabins refused again and again to back down and cast the deciding ballot, saying he would not vote against a colleague. He called for selecting the board chair through a lottery _ he brought along several Scrabble pieces for that very purpose _ or in a rotating order based on members' district numbers.

Commissioners, frustrated, appeared at times about to adopt one of Stabins' approaches, only to retreat. Some members voiced concern that what Stabins proposed was an abdication of responsibility. Another round of fruitless voting would then begin.

"I am flabbergasted and embarrassed for this whole board," Rowden said at one point, echoing in more colorful language a sentiment expressed by other commissioners.

Despite an obvious interest in the chairman's job, and the insistence that after three years as vice chair she deserved the top post, Rowden eventually ended the impasse when she backed down and nominated Schenck.

"It's a little weird how this happened," Schenck said after taking the gavel from Robinson and accepting her gag gifts of aspirin for headaches and ointment for bumps and bruises. "I think some congratulations go to Diane for her compromise."

Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127