“There’ll be strong interest,” said the head of a Florida-based firm selected to conduct a national search for Tacoma’s next city manager.
“This is the kind of job that’s a capstone to a career.”
The above forecast, offered by Colin Baenziger, principle of Colin Baenziger & Associates of Wellington, Florida, struck an optimistic tone as Tacoma readied itself to hire a new top executive.
But it’s not new.
It came in September 2011, several months before the City Council settled on T.C. Broadnax. Then an assistant manager from San Antonio, Texas, Broadnax was chosen as the successor to the ousted (and maligned) Eric Anderson.
Nearly six years later, the same Florida-based firm was picked to help Tacoma fill its city manager void after Broadnax bolted for Dallas.
As it turned out, Tacoma was not the career capstone Baenziger predicted. At least not when Broadnax — who beefed up his resume and earned high marks during his time in the City of Destiny — had the chance to return to the Lone Star State and take a city manager job in the third-largest U.S. city with a city manager-council form of government.
And so here we are, on the cusp of again filling Tacoma’s city manager seat, and again with Baenziger having generated a list of candidates for the job.
There'll be strong interest. This is the kind of job that's a capstone to a career.
Colin Baenziger, principle of Colin Baenziger & Associates, before the national search that brought T.C. Broadnax to Tacoma
At first blush, the list of four finalist feels — how should I put this gently? — a little underwhelming. And coming at a price of $24,500, it’s tempting to ask Baenziger for a money-back guarantee — or, at the very least, a reduced rate when we go through this again in three to five years.
It also raises the question: Is Tacoma incapable of attracting top-notch talent?
OK, let’s back up. That’s not really fair. Predicting who will succeed as a city manager can be a fool’s errand. Just take the opening line from an editorial in this newspaper from May 2005, shortly after Anderson was hired.
“The Tacoma City Council scored a home run Tuesday when it formally hired Eric Anderson as the new city manager.”
More recently, back in 2011, it was probably impossible for hacks like me (or internet commenters, for that matter) to know what kind of leader Broadnax would develop into.
The City Council that hired Broadnax obviously saw something in him, even though he was a longtime assistant manager, with zero experience leading a municipal government. That faith was validated by five years of competent leadership and, eventually, Broadnax’s ascension to one of the larger stages a city manager can land on.
Could the same thing happen again?
Sure. Anything’s possible.
Still, as my colleagues Derrick Nunnally and Candice Ruud noted this week, Tacoma’s current crop of city manager finalists come with plenty of questions.
There’s Kristoff Bauer, the deputy city manager of Fayetteville, North Carolina, who has local ties to the area, along with mixed results from professional stops in Billings, Montana, and Jacksonville, North Carolina. Bauer left Montana with a severance package, and was fired in Jacksonville.
There’s Walter Bobkiewicz, manager of the city of Evanston, Illinois, where he’s been since 2009. Currently, Bobkiewicz is a defendant in in a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging discrimination against the city’s former public works director, Suzette Robinson, a black woman.
There’s Belinda Graham, who works on development and planning for the city manager of Port Townsend. Having “retired” in 2014, she’s the only finalist not credentialed by the International City/County Management Association, and the only one on the receiving end of a public pension — to the tune of $127,356.24 a year.
And then there’s Bob Cowell, the deputy city manager in Amarillo, Texas. He has a background in planning, and moonlights as a visiting assistant professor at Texas A&M — which might mean he wears sport coats with those cool leather elbow patches.
To his credit, Cowell seems to lack the baggage that the other finalists bring with them, which might move him to the top of the list by default. Or, perhaps, it’s by design.
So, what can we make of this mixed lot?
Or, to put it another way: Is there a Broadnax among them — a city manager waiting to blossom in Tacoma?
It remains to be seen. But, based on what the public knows, a healthy dose of skepticism seems warranted.
While it’s true that, when the candidates arrive in Tacoma this week for a round of interviews and a public meet and greet, they deserve an open mind. It can also be said that whoever emerges as the city’s top pick should deserve this important job.
Back in 2011, as the national search that led Broadnax to Tacoma commenced, then City Councilwoman Victoria Woodards offered her thoughts.
“This is such an important decision for the community,” she said.
“I want to make sure we get it done right."
Six years later, Tacoma’s fingers are crossed once again.