The search for a new city manager was given a jolt of eleventh-hour intrigue over the weekend with the logical addition of an in-house recruit as a finalist to run Tacoma’s city government: Elizabeth Pauli, the city attorney since 2004.
We commend the City Council for staying nimble in its efforts to find the best available leader to replace T.C. Broadnax, who quit last winter to take the city manager post in Dallas.
Since joining the city attorney’s office in 1998, Pauli has had a career marked by hard work and competence. Her skills were viewed strong enough that she was appointed interim city manager in February. Adding a seasoned internal candidate to the city manager mix is a good idea, and Pauli now says she’s ready for the challenge.
However, the council must take the time to put her through the same public vetting process the outsiders were asked to participate in. City attorneys are hardly the most prominent and accessible figures at City Hall, and Pauli needs to make her best pitch to Tacoma citizens.
Heading into Saturday’s special meeting, when the council presumably was going to vote on a new city manager, members’ ears were ringing from criticism about their underwhelming field of four finalists. Their job got tougher when Belinda Graham of Port Townsend, the only regional candidate (and the only woman), withdrew from the field.
It got tougher still over the weekend when Walter Bobkiewicz of Evanston, Illinois, pulled out.
Pauli’s name surfaced immediately after the council met in executive session Saturday. “We are not ready to choose a city manager,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said, “and we would like to actually invite (Pauli) to be considered for appointment into the pool of candidates.”
Pauli accepted, and her local expertise may be an advantage over the remaining two outside candidates: Kristoff Bauer, deputy city manager of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Bob Cowell, deputy city manager of Amarillo, Texas.
She’s certainly up to speed on some complex local issues, such as marijuana and billboard regulations, as well as disputes over the future of the Click cable operation and other public utilities.
We have some concern about whether open government would be a priority for her; by training, city attorneys lean toward keeping a lid on public information and may persist in that mentality after being promoted. (Case in point: Puyallup City Manager Kevin Yamamoto, the former city attorney there.)
She also has scant experience dealing with a city-size budget or supervising departments as disparate as public works and finance or police and fire.
All the more reason why the community needs a chance to talk to Pauli, and why the council shouldn’t rush to judgment Tuesday with its expanded roster of candidates.
Having an in-house contender makes sense, just as it did during the last city manager search in 2011, when interim city manager Rey Arellano was a finalist. But Arellano ultimately lost out to Broadnax, who came to Tacoma from Texas with many question marks and returned to Texas having answered them affirmatively.
In the end, familiarity does not ensure success as a city manager. Pauli might not be the best fit for the job. Perhaps the council will shred this list of finalists and go back to the drawing board.
Whatever the outcome — outsider or insider, man or woman, veteran manager or promising recruit — the Tacoma City Council will have to draw from the fund of trust it earned after making a superb hire the last time around.