The Tacoma City Council went out on a limb Tuesday night.
And went with one of the city’s own.
In a dizzying turn of events over the past week, Tacoma saw the list of potential candidates for its open city manager job go from four little-known outsiders with plenty of question marks to one well-known insider who now has the tall task of proving she’s up for the most important job in city government.
The mildly surprising move raises important questions of its own.
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Like, for starters, what is Elizabeth Pauli’s vision for the city? What are her specific qualifications for this job? And what do the movers and shakers of Tacoma who don’t sit on the City Council think of her?
Elizabeth Pauli, we hardly know ye.
For residents, the process we’ve just witnessed produced a known unknown. And, in that, perhaps an understandable feeling of unease for some.
In case you missed the white smoke emerging from City Hall on Tuesday night, Pauli, the city attorney turned interim city manager, is now Tacoma’s new real-deal city manager. The promotion comes thanks to a vote of the City Council that saw members lavish effusive praise on their new hire.
Such pleasantries are customary.
Perhaps they also were a nod to the fact that Pauli had to be persuaded to throw her hat in the ring (initially, she didn’t), and the public was given very little opportunity to come to terms with her candidacy (perhaps, it hasn’t).
Barring any unforeseen contract troubles, Pauli will inherit the job T.C. Broadnax left early this year. She’ll oversee a staff of a couple thousand employees and a biennial budget nearing a couple billion dollars.
The rationale for the City Council’s move seems straightforward and, given the circumstances, easy to understand.
For starters, the candidates turned up by the recruitment firm Colin Baenziger & Associates failed to capture hearts and minds. That is to say, on paper, they left much to be desired. Sure, any one of them might have been great, but there was no clear consensus winner among them.
Perhaps more important is this: Pauli knows Tacoma. She’s worked for the city since 1998, has a keen understanding of the issues and how the city ticks, and has already earned the trust of the council members she’ll now serve.
Over the past 19 years, Elizabeth Pauli has been involved in just about every decision the City of Tacoma has made, and I am excited about the knowledge and skill sets she brings to this position.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland
As Mayor Marilyn Strickland said Tuesday night in a statement announcing the news, “Over the past 19 years, Elizabeth Pauli has been involved in just about every decision the city of Tacoma has made, and I am excited about the knowledge and skill sets she brings to this position.”
There’s a lot to be said for familiarity. And when it comes to Tacoma, Pauli, without a doubt, has it in spades.
But there are also risks in a move that will largely be seen as the safe play.
From a public-perception standpoint, this council choosing a familiar face is asking for some amount of predictable grief.
In the same way that selecting Lauren Walker Lee for the council seat vacated by Victoria Woodards was bound to be viewed by some as insider favoritism, the selection of Pauli, especially in such a dramatic, last-minute fashion, is too. Her hiring has the air of a move that was predetermined, and the optics — especially to local government skeptics — aren’t great.
More concerning, Pauli wasn’t subjected to the same public process as Tacoma’s other — now discarded — city manager finalists. That alone raises red flags. And if things go badly, it will certainly come back to haunt the council members who championed her ascension.
Pauli faced no public questioning and no public meet and greet. There was relatively little public vetting of her candidacy.
To most of the city, Pauli’s name as a legitimate candidate surfaced Saturday, and by Tuesday evening she’d been hired. That means that everything that preceded Pauli’s inclusion was wasted time and energy, and everything that came after was, well, what exactly?
A predetermined piece of civic performance art?
Council members are comfortable with what Pauli brings to the job — which is good, since they were the ones ultimately in charge of filling the position. But since the public never got much of a chance to see and hear from Pauli as an official candidate for the job, it adds an unnecessary element of mystery and uncertainty to how she’ll lead the city.
So, now what?
Not only does Pauli have the pressure that comes with the city’s most important job, she has to carry it out in an environment in which it’s only natural for some residents to have questions about how she got it.
Luckily, the council believes in her. She’ll need their support.
But, to state the obvious, there’s a lot riding on Pauli’s success — not just for her, but for the city and the council that went out of its way to give her the job.
The truth is, no one really knows how these things are going to work out. The council that hired Eric Anderson wasn’t trying to goof, and the council that hired Broadnax certainly benefited from some amount of good luck.
For Tacoma’s sake, let’s hope our elected leaders knew what they were doing Tuesday night. Because here’s the thing about going out on a limb:
You better feel pretty confident about what you’re doing, and that branch better hold.