Corpuz rise, fall: All about business

CEO style: Instincts helped city manager revive Tacoma's downtown - and make enemies

July 6, 2003 

"Government as Unusual." That's how the authors of a book about effective management once described Tacoma's City Hall.

They meant it as a compliment. City Manager Ray Corpuz, a devotee of the "total quality management" principles that transformed Japanese and American business culture, brought the ideas to the City of Tacoma in the mid-1990s.

His embracing of the philosophy was singled out for praise and the Tacoma experience held up as a rare instance in which private business could learn something from government.

In many ways, Corpuz - voted out of a job Tuesday by a sharply divided City Council - behaved like the chief executive officer of a private corporation during his 13 years as city manager.

His business savvy, his connections to important people and his willingness to take risks allowed him to accomplish much. But those same business instincts that made him so effective also led to an air of secrecy that his critics say ran counter to the public-sector position he held.

And more important, it made enemies of those who weren't in on the secrets.

In the end, it might have been this culture of cliques - and behind-the-scenes dealing - that allowed the David Brame scandal to bring down Corpuz just months after a glowing performance review.

Brame, Tacoma's 44-year-old police chief, fatally shot his wife, Crystal, and then committed suicide April 26, a day after Corpuz stated publicly that he didn't intend to look into claims that Brame had abused Crystal and threatened to kill her.

Corpuz, 56, will officially retire July 15. But he has been sidelined since May 6 when he went on paid administrative leave amid questions about his promotion and support of Brame.

"When Ray got himself into trouble, nobody below management level was there to support him," said state Rep. Steve Kirby, the former Tacoma councilman who was among the first to publicly call for Corpuz's resignation. "There was no cover."

How much did he know?

Corpuz selected Brame as police chief in December 2001, three years after the troubled tenure of Police Chief Philip Arreola ended.

It was a popular choice.

Brame, an East Side Tacoma native, second-generation Tacoma police officer and former union vice president, was regarded as a hometown hero, the antithesis of Arreola, a Milwaukee transplant reviled by the union.

No one could have known Brame would kill his wife and commit suicide a little more than a year later, Corpuz's defenders say.

But among the questions investigators are trying to answer is how much Corpuz knew about Brame when he promoted him to chief. Or how much he should have known.

Since the shooting, information has surfaced showing that:

•Brame failed a psychological exam in 1981 when he applied to become a rookie police officer.

•Internal Affairs investigators looked into a date-rape allegation against Brame in 1988.

•And city Human Resources officials warned Corpuz about problems with Brame's job references when he was up for the chief's job.

Corpuz may not have known about all of the problems. But an assistant city attorney says he knew about the rape allegation.

That's because the issue surfaced in January 2001 during a deposition in an employment discrimination lawsuit. Assistant city attorney Shelley Kerslake asked Brame about the allegation and when Brame confirmed it, the two of them met with Corpuz on March 2 to discuss it, Kerslake said.

Brame told Corpuz he had been accused of date rape when he was a patrol officer, but denied the charge, she said.

Corpuz said he would look into it, Kerslake said. Whether he did - and what he discovered - isn't clear. Corpuz has declined to talk about the matter, citing attorney-client privilege.

Ten months after the meeting, Corpuz picked Brame to become chief.

His critics say that move alone is enough to cost him his job.

"Ray got sloppy," said Pat McElligott, president of the fire union Local 31. Either Corpuz shirked his duties by not completely reviewing Brame's background, McElligott said, or he did review the file and decided to overlook the black marks in Brame's past.

"Either way he was wrong," McElligott said.

But Corpuz's defenders say the blame lies solely with Brame. Corpuz is merely a scapegoat for a public and a press determined to find one, they say.

"I didn't lose confidence in Ray's ability to do the job," said Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg, who voted reluctantly to end Corpuz's career. "I don't think the council lost confidence in Ray's ability to do the job. I think what happened is the citizens lost confidence in Ray's ability to do the job."

Comfortable taking risks

It's not surprising that Corpuz took a chance on someone he thought he could trust. Those who worked with him said Corpuz was fiercely loyal to his managers and to those he counted as friends. And he was comfortable taking risks.

Tacoma's new convention center, for example, is paid for through a complex financing plan that keeps the city from exceeding its legal debt capacity.

"I don't think other places would have been comfortable taking something that complex to a city council," said Steve Marcotte, Tacoma's finance director. "Ray didn't bat an eye."

That attitude, combined with extraordinary energy, helped Corpuz get things accomplished.

He presided over the 1990s renaissance of downtown Tacoma, an accomplishment that friends and detractors agree will be his greatest legacy, even if they differ over how much credit he deserves.

"When he took over as city manager, our downtown looked like a ghost town," Ladenburg said. "And it had for about 15 years."

Bill Philip, a retired banker and longtime civic leader, said Corpuz accomplished something no one else could.

"I'm an old man. I've been through crooked mayors. I've been through crooked sheriffs. I've been through them all, one by one," Philip said. "And he's the only one who came along and really revitalized this city."

Philip cites the new convention center under construction, as well as the glass, history and art museums and the ongoing efforts to build car and motorcycle museums.

"I don't know who they're going to replace him with," Philip said. "There's nobody there (at City Hall) who can manage their way out of a popcorn stand."

Corpuz has a head for numbers and a never-waning focus for important projects. He is quiet but driven by work. He sleeps as little as three hours a night, friends say. Corpuz himself says, "It's more like four or five hours a night."

"Ray was very soft-spoken and nonconfrontational," Marcotte said. "But he was unrelenting. When we were doing something, the pressure stayed on all the time" to make projects materialize. "It's very different than working for a screamer."

Mike Crowley worked with Corpuz for eight years as a council member, including one year as mayor. He knew Corpuz working as a downtown business owner, but got to know him as a friend while working on city business.

"He was a very skilled negotiator. He's obviously very politically savvy," Crowley said. "For me as a council member and mayor, he was very easy to work with."

Jim Walton, the assistant city manager who stepped into Corpuz's job after he went on leave, compared Corpuz to a football coach.

"He's not out there blocking and tackling," Walton said. Corpuz let his players do their jobs, but he was clearly directing the outcome of the game.

Achilles heels

Labor relations and police chiefs, often problematic for city managers, turned out to be troublesome for Corpuz as well.

Two years into his tenure as city manager, the city clerks went on strike.

Kirby blamed Corpuz for turning the council against the unions and making the relationship more adversarial than necessary. "I told Ray, 'The thing that's going to be your undoing is labor relations. You're not very good at it.'"

Prior to the Brame shootings, the hiring of Arreola was generally perceived as one of Corpuz's biggest mistakes. During his two years with the department, Arreola proved wildly unpopular with rank-and-file police officers.

Another source of persistent trouble for Corpuz was Tacoma's neighborhoods.

While Corpuz was courting the businesses and activities that would bring jobs and vitality to downtown Tacoma, neighborhood advocates often complained that the city ignored their needs.

"I just think he went overboard," said Ginny Eberhardt, president of the West End Neighborhood Council. "It got to be too much of the good old boy, 'I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine.'"

Sound Transit's $80 million light-rail Link system, which will run trolley cars from the Tacoma Dome Station to downtown, is too little for too much, she said.

"We get a mile-and-a-half train and yet we don't have good sidewalks to get our kids to school safely," Eberhardt said.

Bringing in new business is nice, she added. "But unless you take care of the neighborhoods, the people who are moving here to work, are going to wind up living in Lakewood or University Place or Fircrest or Gig Harbor."

His defenders say it isn't fair to criticize Corpuz for his concentration on downtown. Corpuz believed that by helping downtown, it would improve the entire city.

"He saw the big picture," Ladenburg said.

Rifts in the making

Even without the Brame shootings, some believe Corpuz's era as city manager was drawing to an end. There were noticeable rifts developing in the current City Council, which was proving less willing to accommodate Corpuz than previous councils.

After nearly a decade without a performance review for the manager, the current council revived the practice. In his two recent reviews, he received high marks, although some council members criticized his communication style and reluctance to share power.

One particular sore point was the purchase of the former Carlton Hotel as the headquarters for a computer conversion project. Some council members didn't believe Corpuz gave them enough information about the deal.

Prior to his review last year, Mayor Bill Baarsma and Councilman Mike Lonergan - who led the effort to remove Corpuz - criticized the city manager for not giving the public enough information regarding the proposed $120 million Cosmos office development at the Tacoma Dome.

Baarsma and Lonergan complained that Corpuz left them out of the loop about important meetings and allowed city staff members to advocate for the project before the council voted on it.

The deal later fell apart.

Another Corpuz scheme that failed was a 2001 proposal to shift as many as 300 of the 1,200 Tacoma Public Utility workers to city offices.

Corpuz said his plan stemmed from a 1992 voter-approved proposition aimed at consolidating utility services with city departments, but utilities director Mark Crisson learned of the idea while he was out of town.

Adding to the controversy, Corpuz shelved a $56,000 study that recommended against the consolidation, and neither the full City Council nor the utilities board saw the report or held a public discussion on it. The consultant was quietly paid and never contacted again.

The plan retreated into the background, but only after utility employees and some citizens complained bitterly and threatened their own ballot measure.

Working behind the scenes

Kirby traces some of Corpuz's trouble to a subtle shift in the way the city did business after businessmen like Mike Crowley and Kevin Phelps and former legislator Brian Ebersole joined the City Council.

"They wanted to start doing things the way business did them," Kirby said. That meant doing things quietly, behind-the-scenes. And Corpuz went along.

He began meeting informally with Crowley, Phelps and others on a regular basis and eventually items began appearing on the City Council agenda that apparently came out of those meetings.

Kirby said he and Councilman Dave DeForrest referred to the weekly gathering as the "secret meeting."

"The city manager found he could work pretty well in private," Kirby said.

After the outsiders figured out what was happening, the rest of the group "came clean" about the meetings and made them official by appointing four council members to a committee. Now, the entire council meets for an informal briefing session before convening for its weekly meeting.

Crowley said Corpuz sometimes started deals such as capital projects behind closed doors. But he later rolled them out for public discussion.

"It's a really tough balance," Crowley said. "If we all lived in a perfect world, we wouldn't need to go to a board for guidance.

"In the end, it works out better if you have a variety of opinions. But I think he always kept council members interested engaged in issues."

Corpuz defended his way of doing business.

"You have to look at each situation," he said in an interview Wednesday. "Eventually, these issues were brought to the public."

Corpuz enjoyed support from a majority of council members. And as long as he had the votes of five of the nine council members, his job was safe and his initiatives could pass.

But sometimes he clashed with Lonergan, Councilman Bill Evans and, especially, Baarsma, who was openly critical of Corpuz and the city manager form of government.

It was those three who pushed for Corpuz to go on leave, and crafted the resolution to terminate him without severance.

In the end, they were able to sway two other votes - Ladenburg's and Rick Talbert's - to get the five votes necessary to vote Corpuz out.

Corpuz supporters in Tacoma's social and business circles worked the phones until the end lobbying to save his job even as the momentum swung toward a majority of council votes to get rid of him.

Phelps, a staunch supporter of Corpuz, was saddened to see his friend forced out of office.

"Can I say the way he was treated was fair? No," he said.

Looking ahead

For Ray Corpuz, the end to his 13-year career as Tacoma city manager came quickly.

Sure, the city had been embroiled in controversy for more than two months after the Brame shooting. As the man who hired Brame, Corpuz was at the center of questions about what he knew and what he should or could have done to avert the tragedies.

By early May, Corpuz could see the political writing on the wall. First came the self-induced exile in the form of paid administrative leave. Then came his offer to retire when the investigations were done. Then his request for severance and a counteroffer.

Still, the end came quickly.

There were no phone calls from three council members who led the final push to remove him, no calls from the two others who joined them in the vote.

Corpuz got his news from the newspaper, he said.

His 11th-hour offer to come back to work after his leave was met with a resounding "no," leaving Corpuz out of a job.

Corpuz was saddened, but won't say if he felt he was treated unfairly. "I don't want to talk about that."

Asked about his proudest achievements, he struggled.

"This is very hard for me," he said. "I've always thought of myself as being part of a team."

There's the $162 million land claim settlement he helped negotiate with the Puyallup tribe, which paved the way for much of the development that's occurred in the port and downtown.

There's the multimillion-dollar bond measure from 1997, which resulted in improvements for neighborhoods. And there's the new convention center, now under construction but in the planning for years.

"I'm very proud that people are more optimistic about Tacoma than at any time I can remember," he said. "I see a huge amount of progress and I'm very proud of that."

As for regrets, Corpuz said: "I wish I had more time to complete more projects for the city."

He hopes his next job keeps him near Tacoma.

"I love this city," he said.

Jason Hagey: 253-941-9634
Martha Modeen: 253-597-8646
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659

The rise and fall of Ray Corpuz

Jan. 10, 1972: Begins temporary job as technical coordinator for the City of Tacoma personnel department. Salary is $3.19 per hour.

Sept. 7, 1973: Leaves job with City of Tacoma.

Dec. 10, 1973: Returns to work for city as assistant manpower planning director.

April 17, 1974: Promoted to manpower planning director.

May 3, 1978: Becomes intergovernmental affairs director for the city.

Late 1980s: Helps negotiates a settlement with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians on land claims in the Tacoma Tideflats that clears the way for port development.

Oct. 3, 1988: Leaves the city for a job with Pierce County.

January 1990: Becomes Tacoma city manager.

October 1992: More than 200 city workers go on strike.

Aug. 16, 1996: Hires Milwaukee Police Chief Philip Arreola as Tacoma police chief.

January 1997: Police investigate a burglary at the Corpuz home. Corpuz's wife, Lynda, estimates $30,000 worth of clothing, jewelry and household items taken.

August 1998: Lynda Corpuz admits she filed $10,000 worth of false insurance claims after the break-in. Investigators find no evidence Ray Corpuz was connected to the fraud.

November 1998: Corpuz pressures Arreola to resign, amid broad discontent from rank-and-file police officers.

December 1998: City Council approves 11 percent raise for Corpuz; the next month, some council members try unsuccessfully to halt the raise.

November 1999: Downtown multiplex project, first proposed in 1996, dies after California developer scales back plans and asks for more public funding.

Dec. 20, 1999: Tacoma police officer Joseph Kirby files a civil lawsuit against the city claiming employment discrimination. Corpuz and assistant police chief David Brame and other officers in the police department are named as defendants.

Jan. 18, 2001: During a deposition for the Kirby lawsuit, police Capt. Charles Meinema alludes to a 1988 date-rape claim against Brame, saying Brame was once investigated for a potentially criminal allegation.

Dec. 28, 2001: Corpuz selects Brame as Tacoma's 46th police chief, to replace retiring Chief James Hairston.

April 26, 2003: Brame fatally shoots his wife, Crystal, and then commits suicide. Corpuz appoints assistant chief Catherine Woodard acting chief.

May 1: Corpuz places Woodard on paid administrative leave, announces investigation of "possible criminal misconduct."

May 5: Corpuz steps aside, saying he will take paid administrative leave from manager job until outcome of Brame investigation.

May 12: Corpuz announces he will retire after the Brame investigation is complete.

July 1: City Council votes 5-4 to end Corpuz's employment, without severance pay, effective July 15.

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