McDonald began his new position on September 23, replacing Interim Administrator David Everitt as the key county employee in sprawling San Juan County.
He moves into a demanding position that requires a wide range of skills.
While McDonald has a wealth of experience in a variety of government functions, he looks to his experiences on the front lines in the Middle East as he starts the new job in San Juan County.
“Iraq helped prepare me for this,” said McDonald, who spent more than a year in the Diyala Province in Iraq as a specialist working with the U.S. State Department.
McDonald was in the war-torn province to facilitate the transfer of power from the U.S. military to local governments. He worked to help the local governments provide services in an incredibly diverse area. The challenges were compounded by the cultural, religious, and language barriers.
During the year, McDonald worked on a variety of assignments, including economic development, facility development, and providing services related to basic infrastructure.
After a year in Iraq, McDonald faced a new assignment to facilitate a similar effort in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
“The U.S. Marines came in after the British to push out the Taliban,” said McDonald. His job was to work with the new governor and reestablish governance.
“Elections were held and a 27-member council was elected,” recounted McDonald.
However, before the new council could even begin its work, seven of the council members were assassinated.
“Local residents were no longer interested in serving, they just wanted arms,” said McDonald. “I could see that there was no opportunity to develop local governance.”
The focus turned to economic development. McDonald worked to provide alternatives to farmers in an attempt to eradicate the growth of poppys, which contain opiates and are the most lucrative cash crop.
McDonald explained that his program provided wheat seed to farmers, but they were suspicious of the purple dye in the seed (actually a sign of a much-needed herbicide).
“There were no buyers of the wheat, so the U.S. government bought it,” said McDonald.
After four months in Afghanistan, McDonald returned home to Utah, explaining that he was the father of ten children 7,500 miles from home, was a high value target, and was asked to not wear body armor.
“A bad day here (in San Juan County) will never be near a bad day in the Middle East,” said McDonald.
The new administrator outlined some of the lessons he learned in the Middle East.
“We had tribal issues, cultural issues, religious issues, and language issues,” said McDonald. “I learned that we need to communicate better. Communication was the key to our success.
“Are we communicating properly? How well are we communicating our plans and needs?”
McDonald discussed an example in Iraq where the U.S. military built a beautiful new school. “The Iraqis wouldn’t use the new school because they hadn’t been involved in its development. They couldn’t accept it.”
A native of Kanab, UT, McDonald’s education began at Dixie State and includes a bachelors degree in finance and management at the University of Utah and a graduate degree from the University of Phoenix.
Since earning his degrees, McDonald has 15 years of government experience, including experience in federal, state, county, and city government.
His initial work in government came at the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency, where he focused on removing blight in the city and encouraging economic development.
After returning from the Middle East, McDonald spent seven years with the Utah Department of Human Services, where he worked in a wide range of areas, including managing facilities, fleets, capital, and risks for Aging and Adult Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health, and the Division of Child and Family Services.
For the past five years, McDonald worked for Davis County, where he headed the Department of Facility Management.
McDonald said San Juan County is similar in many ways to Kane County, and he is glad to be returning to southern Utah.
McDonald and his wife are the parents of ten children, ages five to 25. Three of them are married and one grandchild has joined the growing family.
Six children are still at home and will join the McDonalds when they make a permanent move to San Juan County. The family is still looking for housing and working to sell their home in Kaysville.
In the short term, McDonald said he is using the approach he learned in the Middle East.
“We go into an area and determine what services are needed and at what level,” said McDonald. “What is the base? What are the expectations and needs?”
McDonald said he is amazed at the diversity in needs in San Juan County, comparing issues in Spanish Valley with needs in Navajo Mountain. He said each area can have needs that differ significantly than the needs in other areas.
“There are opportunities here,” said McDonald. “That is the biggest encouragement for me. There are areas I know I can affect to make things more efficient.”
McDonald discussed an October 2 meeting with a group of elected officials, including Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. There were federal, state, tribal, county, and community officials involved in the meeting.
“All of us want a solution,” said McDonald. “The need is to meet together, identify the barriers, sit down, and communicate.”