Hours before he stepped to the City Council dais for the last time last week, Fircrest Mayor David Viafore was meeting with the city’s finance director to pore over the city’s budget.
With only four days remaining in his term, Viafore wasn’t going out a lame duck.
“This year is looking good, better than I expected,” he said following the council’s last meeting of 2015.
The Dec. 28 meeting was also the last in Viafore’s political career. At the stroke of midnight Thursday, Viafore’s 24-year stint on the Fircrest City Council ended.
He might have been one of the most polarizing figures in the city’s history, locals say. Once Viafore, 51, formed an opinion it was hard to sway his position, said friend and Fircrest Municipal Court Judge John Miller.
“He’s not bashful,” Miller said. “But he was always willing to change his mind if you could convince him otherwise. He was pretty convinced of his convictions, which is not bad.”
Viafore and Miller attribute his strong personality to his genealogy. Raised in an Italian family in Tacoma, Viafore was never afraid to “tell it like it is,” Miller said.
Viafore spent much of his youth working at the deli he now owns on Regents Boulevard in Fircrest. He began working at the deli at 13 years old. At 20, he bought the business from its former owner and renamed it Viafore’s Italian Delicatessen.
Those who know him best describe him as generous, passionate and kindhearted.
Viafore is often the first person to help his neighbors or the city when it's needed, Miller said. For years Viafore left gifts anonymously on people’s doorsteps in town to mark retirements, anniversaries and deaths, or to help people in need. He also bought things the city couldn’t afford, like a Christmas banner and poinsettias during the holidays
“He does so much for people that people don’t know,” he said.
Others who worked with Viafore but weren’t part of his inner circle admit to having a “love-hate” relationship. But even they say his passion for the city and its 6,500 residents is undeniable.
Did I cross the line some of the time? That may have occurred. But at the end of the day, what was best for Fircrest? I have no regrets of what I did.
Fircrest Mayor David Viafore
“I think it’s no secret that we didn’t always get along,” Councilman Matthew Jolibois said to Viafore at his the council meeting last week.
Noting the two “tossed a few tornadoes” at each other in the 14 years they were on council together, Jolibois said he saw Viafore more as a family member than a colleague.
“My respect and admiration for you will not wax or wane,” Jolibois said.
Viafore’s exit from the council where he was the longest-serving member marks the end of an era.
He was elected in 1991 at 27 years old and spent his first two years watching and learning in the small city wedged between Tacoma and University Place.
“He relied a lot on the experience of others,” said Helen DeRosa-Ames, a former Fircrest City councilwoman and longtime friend of Viafore.
“He would take a lot from what they wanted, what their ideas for Fircrest were, and he made them his own and he just continued,” DeRosa-Ames said.
He became mayor in 1994 at age 29, which made the youngest mayor in Pierce County at the time. Viafore served as mayor for 14 years before the council appointed former Councilwoman Kathy McVay to the position in 2008. Viafore returned to the position in 2010 and held it until his term ended last week.
David Viafore was the longest-serving member on the Fircrest council. He also held the title as the youngest mayor in Pierce County when he was appointed to the position by his peers in 1994 at 29 years old.
As he grew into his leadership role, Viafore combined his business savvy with the vision of the council.
“He has a unique perspective because his business draws a lot of people,” Judge Miller said. “He wants to do what the people want.”
Fircrest has a city manager-council form of government. The mayor acts as a figurehead and doesn’t run day-to-day operations.
There were times Viafore overstepped that ceremonial role. He said it was always because he wanted what was best for Fircrest.
“It’s a fine line on interpretation of what I have or haven’t done,” Viafore said in a Dec. 7 interview from a window seat at his delicatessen.
Questions about whether he was too involved in the city’s operations came to a head in 2003 when an employee whistleblower complaint led to an outside investigation into Viafore’s actions as mayor.
The investigation showed Viafore exceeded his authority and broke state law by interfering with the city’s administration. The investigation cited examples including asking police officers to run license plate numbers and directing employees to stripe roads in certain areas. It also cited intimidation of city staff.
The City Council at the time did not discipline him, and the majority said it supported him.
Looking back, Viafore says he might have handled the investigation differently by requesting a public hearing to air the grievances, but he wouldn’t change how he conducted his job.
“Did I cross the line some of the time? That may have occurred. But at the end of the day, what was best for Fircrest?” he said. “I have no regrets of what I did.”
Viafore has a history of fighting for Fircrest. He led the charge against the state Department of Transportation when it wanted to close the state Route 16 off-ramp into Fircrest.
“WSDOT said it was a done deal, they were not going to allow the ramps,” Viafore said. “I did not accept that, our staff did not accept that, and we went to bat.”
Other highlights include building and paying off the City Hall building, creating the city’s beautification program, spearheading upgrades to the city’s water system, establishing partnerships with neighboring cities and weathering the recession with minimal financial impact.
“The City Council was able to turn the city into a good business model,” Viafore said. “By doing so we have beautiful street projects, we have maintained our infrastructure, and we have done things that other cities just wish they could.”
Viafore, who considers Fircrest the “jewel of Pierce County,” said the decision to leave was not hard. He misses the Fircrest of his youth, including the “elders” who sat on the council.
David, God bless you, and I will see you at the deli.
Helen DeRosa-Ames, former Fircrest councilwoman
“The council has evolved in a different direction,” he said. “It’s time to kind of just step back and see how that evolution is working.”
Viafore was referring to the makeup of the council, which has shifted from mostly veterans to a majority of new members. Jolibois is the most senior with 14 years, followed by Denny Waltier with five years, Hunter George with four years, Jason Medley and Shannon Reynolds with two years, and Brett Wittner who was elected in November.
Viafore said the city is in the best financial state it’s been in since he joined the council, making it easy for him to walk away.
“The timing was right,” he said. “The city is financially solvent. We made it through the recession. The city is in good hands.”
Known for his fiscal conservativeness, Viafore’s peers saluted his dedication to the city’s finances.
“He watched the numbers very, very closely,” city finance director Colleen Corcoran said. “He was there questioning every line item. By doing that and by setting that tone for the city and the employees and staff, staff became very aware of the numbers and trying to save money.”
Rapping the gavel for the final time at the council’s meeting last week, Viafore was matter-of-fact about his departure. As colleagues and friends thanked him during the meeting, Viafore used the same business-like expedience to move through the commendations as he did the other agenda items.
Standing before the council, former Councilwoman DeRosa-Ames thanked Viafore for his generosity while in office and his open heart.
“David, God bless you, and I will see you at the deli,” she said.