Deputy Pierce County Executive Kevin Phelps withdrew Wednesday as a finalist for the Lakewood city manager job, leaving Mountlake Terrace City Manager John Caulfield as the lone candidate to run daily operations for Pierce County’s second-largest city.
Phelps, who lives in Lakewood, told The News Tribune he notified Mayor Don Anderson of his decision Wednesday morning.
Caulfield said told a reporter Wednesday afternoon he “would very much like to be the next Lakewood city manager.”
Anderson said the council still plans to meet at 7 p.m. Thursday. He anticipated council members would vote to extend Caulfield a contract offer and then convene in a closed session to discuss terms.
Anderson said he was disappointed by Phelps’ decision.
“Kevin is an outstanding candidate,” he said. “I know he’d do great things for the city of Lakewood.”
But he added that all three finalists who interviewed Wednesday would do “an outstanding job.”
Phelps said he came to his decision after a lengthy closed-door interview with the City Council on Wednesday evening made him conclude his skills and experience didn’t match what the council was looking for.
“At the end of the day, I wasn’t the best fit for them,” he said.
The council emerged its their closed-door meeting, and Anderson asked each member to whittle the three finalists to two. All seven members named Caulfield, four members named Phelps, and three named Matthew Fulton, former city manager of Coon Rapids, Minn.
The council was supposed to meet Thursday to chose between Caulfield and Phelps.
Phelps, 57, said he was “at peace” with the decision and looked forward to continuing his work with the county on projects such as the U.S. Open golf tournament at Chambers Bay in 2015 and possible development of a new county administrative building.
He said he had no plans to look for another job at this time, calling the Lakewood position a unique opportunity.
Asked if Fulton could still be brought into the mix during Thursday’s meeting, Anderson said he couldn’t speculate but added “that’s not something that anyone has proposed.”
Councilman Jason Whalen said that in his mind, bringing Fulton back into consideration would happen only if a follow-up background check on Caulfield didn’t pan out.
Whalen said he also was disappointed with Phelps’ decision but said Caulfield’s experience as a professional city manager offered a “complete package.” Phelps, a former Tacoma city councilman and deputy state auditor, has never worked as a city manager.
Councilwoman Mary Moss said Caulfield was her top choice from the beginning. She said she was impressed with his efforts to revitalize Mountlake Terrace’s downtown. She also said city staffers who interviewed the three finalists were complimentary of him.
Caulfield, a 48-year-old Boston native, began his local government career in Federal Way and spent nine years with the city of University Place. He rose to become deputy under longtime UP City Manager Bob Jean before heading north. Mountlake Terrace has 20,000 people, about a third the size of Lakewood. He said a major reason he stayed in Washington state instead of returning to the East Coast — and why he applied for the Lakewood job — was the warmth he received from Lakewood residents while he was a young Ranger stationed at Fort Lewis.
A major skill set that the City Council is looking for in a new city manager is experience with economic development to build on projects now most visible along Pacific Highway.
Caulfield highlighted during his interview his knowledge of redevelopment tools available at state and federal levels, including grant programs and land-use policies.
The City Council had named six finalists for the job, following a recommendation from consultant Greg Prothman. Four ended up withdrawing in the last week, including two who accepted city manager jobs elsewhere and a third who decided to stay with his current position. Prothman’s fee was $19,500.
Anderson said he thought the hiring process remained a sound one.
“Everybody invited (for interviews) who dropped out was for a different, understandable reason that didn’t have anything to do with the process,” he said. “I don’t think it had anything to do with the lack of desirability for the job.”