ELLSWORTH — After an 18-month shutdown due to suspected embezzlement, the Hancock County Planning Commission is once again operational and has a new executive director, Jarod Farn-Guillette of Calais.
Farn-Guillette was hired on Aug. 17.
Deer Isle Town Manager Jim Fisher is now the chairman of the HCPC board, replacing longtime chairman Rod Franzius of Hancock.
“HCPC completed a forensic audit and determined that we had sufficient resources to relaunch,” Fisher said.
The planning agency closed after a former employee, Sheri Walsh of Newport, was accused of embezzling $100,000 from funds HCPC had received from the Environmental Protection Agency to do planning work. Walsh was charged in May 2019 with theft by unauthorized taking or transfer, Class B. Walsh served various roles at the nonprofit, including interim executive director.
New Executive Director Farn-Guillette most recently worked for the Washington County Council of Governments (COG).
“I didn’t plan on leaving the COG, as they call it; we had our house, had our life,” said Farn-Guillette, a married father of two children. “Then it was just mentioned to me that HCPC is starting up again.” Someone suggested he apply for the post.
“The reality is HCPC and all the regional planning offices provide such a beneficial service that the public doesn’t even know about,” Farn-Guillette said. “They provide such a diverse range of services that are largely out of sight.”
The Saskatchewan, Canada, native grew up in Calais, where land use planning was not on his radar.
In fact, he was working at a pharmacy and nearly finished with a degree in chemistry when he took an elective — an architecture class on planning — and was hooked.
“It was like the bee’s knees, I’d found my thing,” he said.
So, Farn-Guillette restarted school, earning an undergraduate degree in planning and urban design from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Afterward, Farn-Guillette moved to Seoul, South Korea, to get a master’s degree in landscape architecture and learned the Korean language to do so. He attended Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Environmental Studies.
Before moving back to the United States, Farn-Guillette worked for the city of Seoul Planning Department, which he described as “a night club, open bar, café and a design office merged together.”
“The city of Seoul, when it comes to either urban design, infrastructure, transportation planning, they are really cutting-edge,” said Farn-Guillette. “You’re fitting 20 million people in a space not that much larger than Hancock County. It’s a very efficient system.”
“It was a great experience to learn in a different language and to learn a different approach in solving problems, combining an approach that’s both Western and Eastern,” he said.
At HCPC, there is a lot of work to be done and the director envisions hiring another staff member.
“You could see how much of a gap in services there was in the 16 to 18 months we were closed,” he said.
The planner has been fielding calls from towns needing help with ordinances and tax assessor maps they want updated. Then there’s transportation planning and a tourism promotion project.
“Where the majority of municipalities in this region are smaller and have to pool their services, that’s where even just being back, the amount of work is just piling up and piling up,” he said. “We are going to have to hire somebody.”
Farn-Guillette sees plenty of work on the horizon.
“This is a really great area to be,” he said. “I do anticipate as a result of everything going on in the world, a significant increase in people moving back to the East Coast, which is going to put a strain on resources,” said Farn-Guillette. “These offices become even more essential.”
Clearing the name of the agency is also top of mind for the planner.
“It’s going to take a while to get out of that shadow and bring us out of the doubt that people might have,” he said. “That’s another part of the challenge.”
“This office has a tradition of being innovative, but I’m going to continue on with my own paintbrush,” said Farn-Guillette said. “We’re here to collaborate and get stuff done.”
Two current projects include a Story Map, which the planner said “combines social media and multimedia with a map to provide useful information and cost-effective data.”
The other project is “piloting a program with MDOT to assess infrastructure and impacts for extreme weather events” so the DOT can engage the public to talk about critical infrastructure, he said.
Farn-Guillette and his family have begun looking for a house in the area. Their home in Calais is already under contract.