When Puyallup’s city manager confirmed last week that he was leaving his job and didn’t expect to return to work after a vacation, it made him the third city manager to depart Puyallup in five years.
But was it by choice, or did a council majority push Ralph Dannenberg out the door? It depends whom you ask.
In multiple interviews with all seven Puyallup City Council members over the last week and a half, The News Tribune heard a range of responses.
Councilman John Palmer said Dannenberg was “forced out.” Councilman Kent Boyle used the word “railroaded.”
They said they didn’t want to see Dannenberg go, and they point to the timing as telling.
Just one week before the July 17 session in which Dannenberg’s fate was decided, his job status didn’t seem to be in question.
The council spent roughly 30 minutes on July 10 discussing when and how to conduct Dannenberg’s next performance evaluation. The majority agreed to hold off until November.
Then on July 17, controversy from an “unwelcome contact” report that a female city worker made against Mayor Rick Hansen came to a head.
The employee had reported in April that Hansen touched her on the shoulder and on the hip near her abdomen during a pair of encounters at City Hall that month. Dannenberg sent a memo to Hansen in May advising him to follow city rules and encouraged the mayor to attend training, which he did.
The News Tribune filed a records request and obtained the memo in early July. But the city didn’t release any details about what Hansen allegedly did until July 17.
That night, in front of TV cameras and a standing-room-only crowd, Hansen apologized, and the council formally admonished him.
Councilmen John Hopkins and John Knutsen told The News Tribune they weren’t happy with how the city manager released details about the employee’s complaint. They said a vacuum of information fueled rumors and speculation about what happened between the mayor and the employee.
Councilman Steve Vermillion said the council was left in the dark too long.
At the end of that council meeting, the council and Dannenberg met behind closed doors for roughly two hours.
Afterwards, it was clear Dannenberg would be leaving.
Palmer said the timing sends a “chilling” message to city staff and the public.
“That’s not the culture we should have in the City of Puyallup,” he said.
He added that he was satisfied with how Dannenberg and his staff handled the matter with the mayor. Boyle agreed.
But Vermillion said he didn’t like it, and he had other concerns as well. But he said Dannenberg made up his own mind about leaving.
Hopkins made reference to a statement Dannenberg gave to The News Tribune. “He said the council was moving in a different direction. I think that’s reasonable to say,” Hopkins said.
“I don’t believe it was retaliation,” he said. “I believe it was a multitude of things and each of us had our different issues.”
Knutsen said he wants Dannenberg to be able to “retire in a calm setting” and that “I think he should be the one to speak first” about his impending departure.
When asked if Dannenberg was forced out, Mayor Hansen said the city manager indicated after the closed-door session that he was retiring. Hansen said he wouldn’t comment further.
Councilman Tom Swanson said that whatever mistakes were made regarding the complaint against the mayor, “that’s on all of us.” Swanson said he did not support Dannenberg’s departure.
Dannenberg said in a brief interview with The News Tribune on July 19 that the council “feels a change is appropriate” and that he agreed.
The 64-year-old, who’s on a previously scheduled vacation this week, said he didn’t expect to return to the city in an official capacity.
He couldn’t be reached this week for further comment.
No one on the City Council would disclose details of what happened during the July 17 closed-door session. While city councils generally aren’t supposed to meet out of the public eye, they’re allowed private executive sessions in certain cases, including to discuss some personnel matters.
Dannenberg became the permanent city manager in the fall of 2010 after filling in on a temporary basis for several months.
He’s only been evaluated once – last summer. The council gave him high marks, praising his accessibility, visibility and success in improving morale.
The city’s finance director has been filling in as city manager while Dannenberg is gone. The city has reached out to a consulting firm about aiding in the search for an interim city manager, but no contract is in place.
The council has a special closed-door session planned Tuesday to discuss personnel matters related to Dannenberg, among other topics.