Terry Lee’s legacy intertwined with his future prospects late last year as his time on the Pierce County Council was nearing an end.
The Gig Harbor Republican, a county councilman since 2003, had heard frequent complaints from constituents that Pierce County wasn’t adequately funding its parks west of the Narrows.
With term limits chasing him out, Lee made one last push in 2010 to give 141 acres of county land – from Narrows Park to Sunrise Beach to the Fox Island Fishing Pier – to the Peninsula Metropolitan Park District.
Lee had lobbied five years for the property transfer. He wanted local control, and now it was about to happen. In one move, the park district would increase its land holdings by more than one-third while accepting new liabilities and long-term costs.
Around the same time last summer, Lee made an additional pitch: to be the new executive director of PenMet Parks.
He was hired Oct. 18, working part time in November and December and drawing two paychecks as he finished his term as county councilman. He started full time with PenMet on Feb. 1 after taking an unpaid monthlong break in Hawaii.
There’s no sign that Lee acted illegally. He and the PenMet board are open about the facts. He is hardly the first Pierce County Council member to get another government job after leaving office. Many have done so by election, appointment or hire.
What makes Lee’s case unusual is how he wore two professional hats at the same time for several weeks. And while both Lee and the elected PenMet board say there was no quid pro quo, the county’s ethics code bars county employees from using their office for any private purpose, including “financial gain, or present or future employment.”
The News Tribune could not determine if anyone has filed an ethics complaint against Lee. County ethics commission officials say they are prohibited from disclosing complaints under investigation. Lee said he was unaware of any complaint filed against him.
At the very least, Lee risked the perception that he unduly influenced a decision that could benefit him or his new employer.
In a recent interview, the 64-year-old Lee said he has enough money to retire comfortably. He said he used his pull as a two-term councilman to help seal the deal on the parks transfer and burnish his legacy before leaving office. But he insists he didn’t use the transfer to promote himself for a new job.
“While the timing is, I suppose, somewhat suspect, I think you should find some comfort in the fact that I didn’t do it for financial gain,” he said of the transfer. “I did it for the community, and I think that we will be better off because of it.”
Lee said he consulted twice with Susan Long, the County Council’s legal and operations administrator, to check on what could constitute a conflict of interest: first, when he began negotiations for the PenMet executive director post, and second, when the parks transfer came to a vote of the County Council, after he’d accepted the PenMet job.
He said he was advised he could hold both jobs but abstain from the vote, which he did.
An authority on government ethics who was told the circumstances by The News Tribune cited “an appearance of impropriety” because of Lee’s interest in the executive director job while he was in a position to influence a decision on the parks transfer.
“It certainly appears he was trying to serve two masters,” said Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University in California.
Lee was aware last spring – when he first applied for the PenMet post, then withdrew his name – that holding the two jobs at once might not play well in public. A friend and former campaign adviser warned him about it.
“I’m concerned how holding two government positions in the fall might look in the press,” Kirk Kirkland wrote in an April 15 e-mail to Lee. “The TNT has been confrontational and I don’t want you to get caught sideways if it can be avoided.”
The e-mail is one of hundreds of pages of PenMet and Pierce County documents The News Tribune requested and reviewed, including e-mails, written board minutes, meeting recordings, and other correspondences and records.
The records and interviews show that PenMet’s board of directors quickly switched course last summer after the withdrawal of the executive director it had hired from North Carolina.
The board loosened the job’s minimum qualifications for a position that had already drawn more than 70 applicants and seven finalists with professional parks credentials. It settled with laser-like focus on a politically connected administrator whose Peninsula roots date back nearly four decades.
Terry Lee was their man. His interest in the job had been rekindled.
After they scaled back the qualifications, they interviewed nobody else.
“He can open doors that most people can’t,” Commissioner Curtis Hancock said in an interview.
PenMet park commissioners say the land transfer wasn’t a factor in their decision to hire Lee.
“I’ll be the first to admit that the process looks bad from the outside,” Hancock said. “But I stand fully behind the decision because of the quality of the person we got.”
The timing raised the eyebrows of at least one county resident. Bob Neilson of Puyallup learned about it in mid-December from a county employee and e-mailed Lee to verify what he called an “outrageous and preposterous” arrangement.
Lee responded that the transfer would save the county money. His recruitment, he said, was a separate matter.
The County Council officially approved the land transfer Dec. 14, Lee’s final meeting as councilman. But the county and PenMet had been talking about it since 2005, and some parks commissioners say it would have happened regardless of Lee’s involvement last year.
A transfer was consistent with the county’s master park and recreation plan, which called for the county to divest itself of parks located within local cities and park districts.
Negotiations stalled because PenMet officials and then-County Executive John Ladenburg couldn’t agree on conditions.
The district sought an annual fixed subsidy from the county of $200,000 for an initial 10-year period and $100,000 annually thereafter, waiver of permit fees for development, and detailed surveys of the properties.
Lee thought a transfer made sense and lobbied for it. The two agencies, however, were entrenched in their positions.
In the waning months of his last term, Lee was determined to close the deal.
There had been some movement between the county and PenMet after Pat McCarthy took office as county executive in January 2009. She was open to offering three years of funding support, which PenMet recommended at $166,000 a year.
But a letter from PenMet in December 2009 continued to seek additional conditions, including guarantees that the properties were free of permitting, legal or environmental problems.
Meeting minutes show Lee started discussing the land transfer with the parks board on Sept. 28, 2010.
His message around this time was clear: Take it or leave it. Securing the properties at no cost – and receiving a total of nearly a half-million dollars from the county to subsidize the parks – was a great deal, he told them.
He raised the possibility that the funding might not be there after he left office, he said.
“The only way that I could feel comfortable that it was going to occur in the best scenario was to be somewhat in the driver’s seat, somehow having the opportunity to make this happen for the community,” he said. “This has nothing to do with me getting a job for PenMet Parks.”
Lee said he didn’t lobby other County Council members to support the transfer. But he started his final push for PenMet to accept the parks while he was also negotiating to become its executive director.
Two key decisions were made at the Oct. 18 PenMet board meeting: Lee was hired, and the board agreed informally to go forward with the parks transfer, according to meeting minutes.
That same day, Lee received a congratulatory e-mail from the county parks director. Lee responded that the PenMet board was receptive to the parks transfer.
The board officially decided to proceed with the transfer Dec. 6, by a unanimous vote. The Pierce County Council approved the transfer by a vote of 6-0 on Dec. 14, which was Lee’s final meeting as councilman.
Lee recused himself from the vote. But in a news release, McCarthy and Lee’s fellow council members recognized Lee “for his work over the past five years to promote these property transfers.”
Lee’s ascendance begins a new chapter for a park district that has gone through rapid growth in a short period.
Voters approved PenMet’s formation in 2004 with a mission of providing parks and recreation services in a 58-square-mile area in unincorporated Pierce County west of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and east of the Purdy Bridge.
It succeeds the Peninsula Park and Recreation District, which formed in 1984 but continuously struggled to raise money.
PenMet has independent taxing authority. It’s estimated to receive more than $3.7 million in dedicated property and sales tax revenue this year, budget figures show.
With stable funding, the agency has blossomed. It started out more than six years ago with two parks totalling 38 acres. In 2005, it hired its first full-time employee, the executive director. Today it has more than 11 full-time-equivalent employees and owns, leases or holds an interest in 17 parks totaling 544 acres, including the recent transfer.
Much of the growth happened under the watch of Marc Connelly, PenMet’s original executive director. Early last year, the district began recruiting a replacement for Connelly, who would retire Aug. 31. It hired Clover Park Technical College to screen more than 70 applicants and recommend finalists.
Lee learned of the opening in February and decided to apply.
He had worked closely with PenMet over the years, in ways such as:
• Sponsoring the legislation that asked voters to form the park district.
• Working with the district to provide funding that enabled the transfer of the Tacoma Narrows Airport from the City of Tacoma to Pierce County in 2008. PenMet secured Madrona Links Golf Course through a separate but related transaction.
• Securing funding for the second phase of the Cushman Trail, a prominent walking and biking path on the Gig Harbor peninsula.
The PenMet job also aligned with Lee’s personal interests. He has summited Mount Rainier three times, finished the annual bike ride from Seattle to Portland 11 times, and run 31 marathons, including the Boston Marathon in 1987.
“What could be better than building fun for people?” he said.
In consulting with his wife, Donna, however, Lee said he became convinced that retirement was a better fit and thought it would be unfair to continue the process if he wasn’t fully committed.
He withdrew his name in May.
The minimum qualifications initially established by the board were a four-year degree in parks, recreation, landscape architecture or a closely related field, and a preference for a minimum of eight years of experience in that field.
Lee had earned a bachelor’s degree with a double major in chemistry and zoology in 1970. He said his lack of a degree in one of the specified fields did not factor into his decision to withdraw his application.
Lee acknowledged that there is a public perception about “double-dipping” but added that it didn’t play into his decision to withdraw his original candidacy.
FINDING A DIRECTOR
In June, the PenMet board and a community panel interviewed seven candidates for parks director. Three were from out of state; four were in-state candidates, including Commissioner Curtis Hancock, who works as a project manager with Metro Parks Tacoma.
The total cost of the recruitment process was about $8,000, according to district figures.
The board hired its top choice, Daniel Hopkins, the recreation superintendent in Asheville, N.C., on Aug. 2. He was scheduled to start Sept. 1.
Four days before his first day, however, Hopkins notified the district that he couldn’t fulfill the commitment for a personal reason.
“It was my decision, again, revolving around the health of a family member,” Hopkins told The News Tribune.
He later accepted a job in Cary, a town west of Raleigh, N.C.
The PenMet board met Aug. 31 and charted a different path as it started a second recruitment. The audiotape reviewed by The News Tribune makes clear the board members wanted to bring in someone with more administrative experience. (Lee’s name was not specifically mentioned.) They felt they leaned too heavily on parks expertise in the first round.
“We wanted a different dynamic,” board member William Sehmel explained later.
They had people on staff with the skills to maintain and develop parks and run recreation programs. The board now wanted a CEO with connections, vision and big-picture thinking.
Neither state law nor district policies establish minimum qualifications for the executive director position, and board members said the district’s attorney advised them they had the authority to make changes.
They decided to review the initial pool of applicants again. To help them, they loosened the minimum qualifications to graduating with a four-year degree with no specific emphasis. They said they preferred, but did not require, professional parks and recreation experience, and they suggested no minimum years of experience.
After an hourlong discussion Sept. 7, the board settled on contacting seven candidates from the original pool to see if they were interested in the job. They also directed Sehmel, who had approached Lee the week before about reapplying, to ask Lee to consider an interview. Sehmel was a friend of Lee and, along with Commissioner Todd Iverson, had run for Lee’s seat on the County Council last year. Neither Sehmel nor Iverson advanced past the August primary.
Lee was identified as Applicant 20. (Applicants were given numbers to protect their confidentiality.) Board members liked his connections but raised concerns about his lack of parks experience and about how long he’d serve, if hired, according to a tape of the meeting.
During the next few days, the district’s administrative assistant contacted the other seven candidates by e-mail, with five saying they were still interested, according to district records.
The board never interviewed them.
Lee accepted the interview offer. His wife was leading a Bible study group, and that limited the couple’s ability to travel, something she wanted to do when he retired.
He said he was growing more concerned about the next chapter of his life as the end of his council term approached.
“I wanted to somehow play a role, somehow play a part, somehow make a difference,” he said. “I think that’s what really kept my interest. It wasn’t the additional money, although money is important. I think it was still being a player in the community.”
The board interviewed Lee on Sept. 20, and he assuaged their concerns. The board voted unanimously to begin contract negotiations later that evening. Sehmel, whom Lee had informally endorsed for his council seat, abstained.
Lee was hired Oct. 18 with a 3-0 vote. (Two commissioners were absent.)
Lee could have avoided holding two jobs at once. He said he didn’t consider resigning his council seat early and doesn’t recall considering a later start date with PenMet.
During negotiations with the board, he said he raised the idea of drawing no salary for his part-time work. He said PenMet’s attorney told him it couldn’t accept that offer.
Lee will earn $74,833 this year – about $20,000 less than Connelly did in his last full year as director and about $30,000 less than Lee made as a county councilman. (Lee’s salary reflects 11 months of work because of his time off in January.)
One commissioner wasn’t completely sold on the decision. Before he voted with the others to start negotiating with Lee, Iverson had sought to reopen the search process.
“I wanted to take the time and make sure that Terry was the right guy,” Iverson said, “but the rest of the board felt they had the right guy then and there and jumped on him.”
Commissioner Jon Ortgiesen said Lee’s skills as a politician are of inestimable value.
“He knows everybody in the county,” Ortgiesen said. “When we go out and apply for grants or we need to get some projects done, he can go out there and sell for us.”
Added Hancock: “He’s gotten proven bridge-building and partnership-building skills, and he’s done it over and over and over. He’s a good person to bring people together.”
Already, Lee is putting those skills to use, planning to work with the Peninsula School District on an agreement to jointly use its space. He also approached the City of Gig Harbor about working together, and even raised the idea of annexing the city’s parks into PenMet.
If the board decides to keep him beyond his one-year contract, Lee said, he plans to stay three more years. He wants to make PenMet the envy of every park district in the state.
Lee makes it clear he would have run for a third term on the County Council if not barred by consecutive term limits. He said he has conflicted feelings but hasn’t ruled out running in 2014, when the seat comes up again.
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390