Pierce County’s second-largest city is poised to lose its top elected and appointed leaders, portending the most significant leadership change for Lakewood city government in its nearly 17-year history. The city has had only two city managers and three mayors in that time.
Mayor Doug Richardson will leave office Jan. 15 after voters elected him to the Pierce County Council last month. Richardson is the last member of the original council that started work when Lakewood became a city in 1996.
Richardson’s council tenure equals the combined experience of the other six members. The city is seeking candidates to finish his unexpired term.
City Manager Andrew Neiditz also is poised to depart the job he has held for seven years. Neiditz has been recommended to lead South Sound 911, the county’s new emergency dispatch system. The agency’s board has scheduled a confirmation vote Jan. 9. Neiditz must give 30 days notice under the terms of his employment contract.
Near the end of their last meeting of the year this week, Lakewood City Council members reflected on the past 12 months and looked ahead.
Councilman Jason Whalen noted that “2013 is going to be a year of change.”
“The only thing that is certain is life is change,” Councilman Don Anderson said in an interview Thursday.
Anderson, a five-year council veteran, becomes the most senior member after Richardson’s departure. And he knows it’s significant to have both the mayor and the city manager leaving.
“It’s unusual in both cases to have people in those positions with that long of tenure,” Anderson said. “We really have been blessed to have that. I don’t think we can be disappointed that it ends. Obviously, it’s a loss of a lot of institutional memory and skills.”
But he doesn’t expect much upheaval because council members are skilled and collaborative people, and they will set out to find a city manager who’s a good fit for the organization, he said.
Anderson is the deputy mayor and could be considered a frontrunner for the mayor’s post.
Under Lakewood’s system of government, the City Council sets policy and hires a city manager to enact it and manage the day-to-day operations at City Hall. The mayor, who is selected among council members, serves as the city’s figurehead and runs council meetings.
The remaining leaders will face plenty of challenges in the new year and beyond:
• Contracts with all three city labor unions expire at the end of the year, and negotiations continue.
• The council is expected to ask voters to increase taxes to pay to maintain and improve streets.
• Lakewood’s staunch opposition to a proposal to reroute Amtrak passenger trains through the city could head to court next year.
• The council will have to closely monitor the budget in uncertain economic times.
Former council member Walter Neary noted Lakewood’s three mayors all were members of the original council, and he said it’s a good time to infuse the organization with fresh blood.
“The city needs to develop new leaders,” wrote Neary, who served from 2004-11, in an email. “You can’t have the same old leaders forever; not only is stagnation bad for public policy, but people don’t live forever. You have to develop the next generation.
“I hope the city rotates the position of mayor for the next several years,” Neary added, “so the council and the city can experience a variety of leadership styles and approaches.”
Two things work in Lakewood’s favor in finding a new city manager, he said. Candidates can step forward comfortably knowing the divisive politics that can endanger his or her job security are gone, at least for now. Lakewood CARES, a self-styled watchdog group, split the council the last time it sought a city manager, Neary wrote.
In addition, Neiditz’s high-level involvement in city manager associations could help him usher young talent in Lakewood’s direction, he added.
Dan Penrose, president of largest of the city’s three unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1938, said change at the top does bring uncertainty for employees.
Both Neiditz and Richardson have been supportive of employees, and there’s always concern new leadership will “have less regard for the organization as a family and more regard for the organization as a machine,” Penrose said.
“I think it’s a time of transition,” he said. “It’s … wait and see what happens.”
Neiditz has been mum on his likely departure from City Hall, saying it’s premature until his hiring his finalized.
Anderson said he expects Neiditz will land the new job.
The councilman said there are talented department directors who could fill in as interim city manager until the City Council makes its hire.
“I see a steady hand at he helm during the process, and hopefully the council can make a good selection,” Anderson said.