At the corner of Mike Lonergan’s desk sits a green sheet of paper dusted with glitter.
“I’M THE NEW GUY,” it reads.
A staffer at the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer’s Office gave the sheet to Lonergan, the new boss — elected in November, sworn in Dec. 28, and welcomed by a relieved staff. He started working Wednesday at an annual salary of more than $126,000.
Lonergan, 63, was sporting enough to pin the green sheet to his jacket for a few minutes at his swearing-in ceremony. Staffers cheered. Stray glitter spilled over him, but he didn’t mind. He knew he wasn’t just another new guy.
He read a short speech that day, and thanked county Auditor Julie Anderson, his one-time colleague on the Tacoma City Council, for arranging the event and helping him jump through the hoops of bureaucratic transition.
He thanked Billie O’Brien, his opponent in the November election, and now his employee: O’Brien is the administrative officer at the Assessor’s Office.
The swearing-in was a formality, but it meant something more.
Lonergan replaced Dale Washam, whose four-year tenure spawned ceaseless controversy, a cluster of internal investigations, a recall campaign and legal settlements that cost the county more than $1.5 million.
Those and other circumstances prompted Lonergan — a former leader of the Tacoma Rescue Mission — to campaign as a reformer and a healer. He said the Assessor’s Office was broken, and leaned on a slogan: “Let’s fix this.”
During Washam’s tenure, the Assessor’s Office resembled a bunker. He almost never granted in-person interviews, denied requests to tour the office and briefly erected cones of silence, forbidding staffers to talk to one another except in designated areas.
Washam’s portrait, posted in several frames throughout the office, stared out from various walls. Those frames are empty now.
In the early days of his term, he accused his staffers of criminal acts. The relationship soured from there.
He spent most of his days in his office, rarely speaking to anyone but his chief deputy, Albert Ugas, who also departed when Lonergan took office.
Washam’s last day was Monday. He reportedly left without a word to his staff.
A week before starting the job, Lonergan asked for a private meeting with Washam. The two men spoke for 90 minutes, with Ugas in attendance.
“I heard his version of a lot of things,” Lonergan said. “There were a few helpful things that were said.”
He does not dwell on the conversation. At his swearing-in, he referred briefly to Washam.
“I will only say this, and hope you can find it in your hearts to agree with me. I believe that he had good intentions, and that he did the best that he was able to do, in the only way he knew to do it. And with that, let’s wish him and the outgoing deputy well.”
Another leftover worried Lonergan as he began making the rounds and greeting the staff. On his first day, he was recovering from a bad cold. His head felt like wet cotton, and his voice was froggy.
He didn’t want to shake hands and pass the crud – but he also knew his predecessor was known for never shaking hands. Fearing the wrong impression, he took extra pains to explain.
“That was a real stressful way to start out,” he said.
On the job for only three days, he’s made one change in his office — the infamous office where Washam spent most of his time, where large mirrors he requested reflected the opposite window into the main work area, allowing him to turn his back to the office and still see the staff.
Washam had a computer and a phone in the office, placed under the mirrors, some distance from his desk. Lonergan moved the computer and the phone. Now it sits right behind him, in easy reach. He couldn’t figure out the awkward placement at first, until staffers explained that Washam almost never used the computer or the phone.
Lonergan has met with main managers over his first few days, with the goal of learning the ropes and the systems and talking to all 71 staffers about what they do.
He said he’s not interested in change for its own sake, or demonstrating that he’s in charge. He wants to learn the place, understand the moving parts, get a feel for who does what.
He’s not appointing a chief deputy to fill the position vacated by Ugas — Lonergan sees no need for it, and he also sees the savings on the budget side.
If he appoints a deputy at $91,000 a year, he’d have to cut elsewhere in the department’s $9.6 million budget.
“I’m not going to start my administration by laying off a couple of people,” he said.
He’s reaching out to his peers statewide — other county assessors who meet to discuss emerging issues. Washam scorned such relationships during his tenure, further isolating his operation. He also limited training opportunities for staffers looking to stay abreast of new developments. Lonergan will change that too, he said.
“We need to re-establish contact with the rest of the assessor world,” he said. “We need to get more training going.”
He’s been baffled by other internal policies set by his predecessor — granular scheduling, right down to the timing of breaks. He suspects those policies can relax a bit.
“That was a surprise to me, to find out just how rigid it was,” he said, noting that such a management style is based on lack of trust.
“My premise, of course, is very different,” he said. “We have a really qualified, professional staff with qualifications that I don’t have, and I can trust them. The word trust is going to be really important, and it’s a two-way street — people have to come to trust me.”
He got a piece of advice from one staffer on his first day: Come say hello once in a while — let us know you know we work for you.
“Seems kind of basic,” Lonergan mused.
On Friday, he tried it, walking around the office, still finding his way from place to place.
The scale of work — not just property appraisal, Washam’s obsession, but other facets — impresses him.
“A tremendous volume and variety,” Lonergan said. “These are pretty big undertakings. It really is amazing how much work is accomplished.”
He stepped into the personal property section, where two employees, Margot Swanson and Raquel Palmas, greeted him with smiles. In the commercial appraisal section, employees waved and grinned.
In the area where senior property tax exemption and deferrals are processed, Lonergan talked to Victoria Short and Susan Testo, leaned against a cubicle and briefly explained what they do.
“Did I get it right?” the new assessor asked.
“You did very well,” Short said with a smile.Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486