Surprised city administrator gets pink slip from Gig Harbor mayor

Staff writerApril 16, 2014 

18cityadmin

Denny Richards

LEE GILES III — The Peninsula Gateway file, 2012

Gig Harbor city administrator Denny Richards, who has run city government for the last two years during a period of layoffs and financial struggles, will be replaced by a yet-to-be named successor at the end of the year.

Mayor Jill Guernsey, who has the authority to make administrative decisions without council approval, made the announcement at a council meeting Monday.

Richards, who was the city’s police chief from 1987 to 1995, said Guernsey’s decision blindsided him.

“It was a surprise because we had a meeting of myself and my senior staff on Jan. 9 and the mayor made it very clear I was the city administrator of the future,” Richards said Tuesday.

By April, Guernsey changed her mind and told Richards she wouldn’t renew his contract for 2015. She also asked Richards to train his replacement between now and the end of the year.

“It’s very unusual, but I’ll be training this new person,” Richards said.

Guernsey declined to comment Tuesday, saying she wasn’t comfortable talking about personnel. Instead she provided The News Tribune with a copy of a prepared statement she read at the council’s meeting Monday.

“My decision has not been an easy one, nor was it made lightly, however, I remain committed to the need to be proactive with respect to the economic development needs of the entire city,” the statement read.

Earlier this year Guernsey asked the council to add a full-time economic development manager position to the city’s 2014 budget.

“The city cannot sit by as we have done in the past and rely on the Downtown Waterfront Alliance, the Chamber of Commerce and others,” Guernsey said in the prepared statement. “We must step up and take the lead in this area.”

Guernsey’s proposal had attracted critics both in the community and on the council. Some council members questioned the necessity of adding a new position and its proposed $120,000 annual salary.

“I just don’t think hiring an economic development administrator is any kind of solution for our downtown problem, if there even is any problem in our downtown,” Councilman Ken Malich said Tuesday.

“Downtowns don’t survive very well when you have big-box stores on the outskirts for citizens to go to.”

Guernsey, who had previously tabled her proposal for an economic development manager, brought back a revised version Monday.

A new job description and reduction in salary earned the support it needed to pass. The council voted 6-1 to add the position. Malich was the lone dissenter.

The amended job description also made Guernsey’s motives clear: She wanted to bring in a new city administrator focused on economic development downtown.

“Historically a new mayor comes in and puts their own city administrator into that position. The last three mayors have done that,” longtime Councilman Steve Ekberg said. “She has selected someone that she wants to do the job.”

Ekberg thinks if this had been clear when the idea was first floated there may have been less opposition.

Guernsey, who was elected mayor last fall, has not publicly named Richards’ successor and did not answer when asked Tuesday if she had someone lined up for the job.

Her amended proposal lowered the salary for the economic development position from $120,000 to a range between $63,000 and $78,000. When the new hire transitions to city administrator in 2015, his or her pay would increase to approximately $130,000.

Under his contract, Richards will receive three months’ pay as part of a severance package when he leaves. He makes $130,000 a year.

Richards was city manager in Kelso before returning to Gig Harbor in 2012. At 70 years old, he guessed retirement was his next step but said he was disappointed he wasn’t leaving on his own terms.

“I just wanted to see it another year, to see it flourish,” he said of the city. “There’s been a lot of good changes here since I’ve been here and I’m real proud of that.”

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467

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