Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine is resigning her post to head the gaming industry's main lobbying group in the state.
Valentine, 54, will leave the county's top job on Jan. 4 to become president of the Nevada Resort Association.
Her announcement Wednesday caught many commissioners and others by surprise. No one could say whether an interim manager will be chosen while county officials search for a replacement.
"It came as a total surprise to me," Commissioner Steve Sisolak said.
During much of her four-year tenure, Valentine had to shepherd the county through the worst economic downturn and probably the most severe budget crisis in its history. The strained budget has caused the county to wrangle with its firefighters union in arbitration and to begin tense bargaining with its largest public employee union.
Valentine will depart as the county's financial troubles deepen because of depleted tax revenue. The Legislature also is expected to raid the county's coffers to help fill a state budget shortfall.
The county's rough circumstances could make the job less appealing to potential candidates and will limit the county's ability to offer a competitive salary, commissioners said Wednesday.
"It's going to be difficult to find someone to fill her shoes," Sisolak said. "It's a tough economic time. "
Every commissioner interviewed said the county was losing a solid leader.
"I like what she does and how she works," Commissioner Susan Brager said.
Brager said candidates for top-tier jobs always look at salaries, and the county's waning financial resources will limit what it can offer.
Valentine passed up pay raises for three years in a row, keeping her salary at about $207,000, well below what many local managers are paid to run smaller public entities.
But Valentine, who declined to be interviewed, made no mention of money as a motive for her job change. In a written statement, she emphasized the excitement of a new challenge.
"The gaming industry drives Nevada's economy and employs its people," Valentine said. "The current economic climate and its challenges make this an opportune time to play a role in shaping the future of gaming and the future of the state. An opportunity like this doesn't come along every day."
Still, the decision was a difficult one, she said. Her four years as assistant county manager and four years as county manager prepared her for this career change, she added.
The resort association monitors state oversight of the industry and lobbies for policies favorable to gaming in Nevada. The group also works with a national counterpart in Washington, D.C., to help shape federal legislation.
Valentine was Las Vegas city manager from 1998 to 2002 before becoming assistant county manager. She became county manager in 2006, replacing Thom Reilly.
Her knowledge of government's inner workings and her experience overseeing a big, complex organization should serve her well in her new job, said Reilly, who recalled endorsing her as his successor four years ago.
"She's got great management skills," Reilly said. "The NRA is lucky to have her. She'll be able to navigate the different personalities over there."
Reilly said most county managers last only four or five years because it's a stressful job.
Commissioner Rory Reid, who will finish his final term two days before Valentine leaves, praised the outgoing county manager for being professional through all the hardships.
"I think she has done a tremendous job in a very difficult time," Reid said. "Clark County will miss her."