Politics & Government

Will Tacoma’s next city manager be a downgrade?

The final candidates for the city of Tacoma’s top administrative job don’t have the same level of experience or reputation as the recently departed T.C. Broadnax.
The final candidates for the city of Tacoma’s top administrative job don’t have the same level of experience or reputation as the recently departed T.C. Broadnax. Staff file, 2013

None of the finalists in the Tacoma City Council’s search for its next city manager can match the polished résumé T.C. Broadnax brought to town when he applied for the job in 2011.

One was fired from his last city manager job and accepted a settlement to resign from the one before that.

Another isn’t credentialed by the top city managers’ professional organization and would come to Tacoma double-dipping on a six-figure taxpayer-funded pension from California.

A third is defending a racial-discrimination lawsuit filed by a former department head.

During the past three years, three of the four have applied to manage cities smaller than Tacoma and been passed over.

Broadnax didn’t have any notable baggage when he arrived in Tacoma in February 2012.

He had been one of four assistant city managers in San Antonio, a city of about 1.5 million people. He was previously assistant city manager in Pompano Beach, Florida, and spent time there as a deputy city manager and a budget officer.

His strong budget background and experience overseeing different departments in San Antonio, much larger than Tacoma, helped him overcome the criticism he had never been a city manager.

Broadnax left this year with accolades for righting the city’s finances over the course of his five years in Tacoma and starting several initiatives to promote equity in hiring and across the city.

The same recruiting company that brought Broadnax to Tacoma was hired to run the current search, at a cost of $2,000 more this time.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland said it is important to put a proper value on the strengths candidates from wide-ranging backgrounds have — while also being realistic about their histories. A city manager search, Strickland said, is likely to find qualified candidates in cities where political circumstances have turned against them.

“I think any time you have a high-profile position of leadership you’re going to have detractors and there will be issues that come up ... and there is a reason that city managers have contracts, because they are at-will employees,” Strickland said.

“It could be the change of a City Council member, different attitudes, going in a different direction. You can’t hold the fact that someone was let go against them because it happens to a lot of people, and this is why they have contracts, because they know that depending on what the situation is, they can be let go.”

A vote to pick Tacoma’s next city manager is scheduled for a special council meeting Saturday.

Unless the pool changes, one of these four will become the city’s top administrator:

Kristoff Bauer

Bauer, the deputy city manager of Fayetteville, North Carolina, is one of two candidates with regional links. He has four degrees from the University of Washington, including a master’s of business administration and a law degree. He was a member of the state bar and was an assistant to the city manager in Shoreline before heading out of state.

His career since Shoreline has been mixed.

He lasted two and a half years as the city manager of Billings, Montana, before he took a severance package from the City Council and quit in 2005. At the time, he had been embroiled in a long-running power struggle with the city’s police chief, who also resigned but was elected mayor after Bauer left.

Bauer was fired from his next city manager job, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, by a split City Council for reasons that were never publicly detailed. He had been there three years.

An ally of Bauer’s on the council, Horace Mann, said he and Bauer fell from favor because of rising anti-spending sentiment.

In his application packet for the Tacoma job, obtained by The News Tribune, Bauer called the Billings experience “my most significant failure.” He wrote that it had taught him the importance of understanding the political implications of his official actions. The application did not discuss his Jacksonville departure.

Bauer told The News Tribune that he had provided the Tacoma City Council with references from his Jacksonville and Billings days.

“I believe that they will confirm that I served both communities well,” he wrote in an email.

In his Tacoma city manager application, Bauer wrote that his reasons for wanting to work in Tacoma reached back years, to his work in Shoreline. He worked in that city, which borders Seattle’s northern city limits, in the 1990s.

“My interest is in a unique opportunity to get back to a region that I love and miss,” he wrote, “and to join the leadership team of a city that I envied from across the lake for years while working in Shoreline.”

It is unclear from the letter to which of several lakes between Shoreline and Tacoma this might refer.

Bauer told The News Tribune that the language appeared to be an accidental holdover from an application he made elsewhere in the region.

“I have been attempting to get home for a few years now,” he wrote in an email.

In 2012, he applied to be named city manager of Fayetteville, where he now works, but did not get the job. He also lost a bid to become city manager of Denton, Texas, which has about half Tacoma’s population, in 2016.

Councilmen Joe Lonergan, Conor McCarthy, Marty Campbell, Ryan Mello, Keith Blocker, Robert Thoms and Anders Ibsen voted to name Bauer a finalist. Strickland and Councilwoman Lauren Walker Lee voted no.

Walter Bobkiewicz

Bobkiewicz, manager of the city of Evanston, Illinois, is married to a woman who hails from the Kent area, so a Tacoma move would bring them closer to family, he has said. He has extended family living in California.

Bobkiewicz has been city manager in Evanston since 2009. Before that, he spent almost 20 years working in local government in California, where he started as an administrative analyst for Long Beach and rose to manager of the city’s telecommunications bureau. He was assistant city manager in Novato, California, then became the city manager of Santa Paula, California, where he worked for seven years before moving to Evanston.

In Evanston, Bobkiewicz is a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleges he discriminated against the city’s public works director, a black woman.

The woman, Suzette Robinson, headed the department from 2010 until she was fired in 2015.

In the suit, she claims Bobkiewicz undermined her authority, disparaged her in front of others and retaliated against her after he received a reprimand for his behavior. She also alleges Bobkiewicz repeatedly told employees that “we are going to make sure we have the right people in the right seats on the bus.” The phrase, her suit against Bobkiewicz and the city states, “has a negative connotation to blacks.”

In a response to the lawsuit, the city’s attorney contested many of the allegations, but said Bobkiewicz did use the expression Robinson found offensive.

Bauer wrote in an email to The News Tribune that Robinson’s dismissal was part of a larger reorganization “driven by financial and budgetary considerations.” Neither race nor retaliation had any role in his decisions, he said.

Strickland, Mello, Blocker, Walker Lee, Ibsen and Campbell voted to name Bobkiewicz a finalist. McCarthy, Lonergan, and Thoms voted no.

Bob Cowell

Cowell is the deputy city manager in Amarillo, Texas, where he has worked since 2013. His background is in planning. Before he came to Amarillo, he was the executive director of planning and development services for College Station, Texas. He is a visiting assistant professor in Texas A&M University’s department of landscape architecture and urban planning.

Cowell has worked as a planning director in Bloomington, Indiana, and in the private sector as a principal planner.

Last year, Cowell was a finalist for the city manager position in Amarillo, Texas, a city with a population slightly less than Tacoma’s. The City Council decided to go another way, hiring an outsider for the first time since 1963, according to the Amarillo Globe-News.

Cowell told The News Tribune that the City Council in place when he was passed over had been elected on a change mandate. Hiring a city manager from outside was part of that mission, he said.

“They were focused on doing what Amarillo had not done for many, many years,” Cowell said. “Looking for someone coming from outside of the organization became a big deal to them.”

He said he felt he had been treated fairly in his interviews and had remained on good terms with the council after he was passed over.

All five of Amarillo’s council members are now leaving office, following the municipal elections held there Saturday.

Cowell said in his application for the Tacoma job that he’s interested in working in a new community with “a clear focus on its future and a sound plan to get it there. I am interested in a place that offers new challenges and that benefits from a committed and engaged council and citizenry.”

Strickland, Mello, Thoms, McCarthy, Lonergan, Campbell, Ibsen and Walker Lee voted to name Cowell a finalist. Blocker was the sole no vote.

Belinda Graham

Graham, who works on development and planning for the city manager of Port Townsend, previously worked for the city of Riverside, California, which has a larger population than Tacoma.

There, she rose to assistant city manager in a bureaucracy that oversaw a $993 million annual budget before she retired in 2014.

She wrote in her application letter that she and her husband had vacationed on the Olympic Peninsula for more than a decade before moving there after retirement. She wrote that her biggest achievements with Riverside were negotiating the rehabilitation work and operations contracts for a once-dilapidated theater.

Since 2014, she has been passed up for city manager jobs in Bellevue, Sequim and Puyallup. She was a finalist in each city’s search.

She is the only finalist who is not credentialed by the International City/County Management Association. As a retiree, she is drawing a public pension. The California Public Employees Retirement System is paying Graham an annual pension of $127,356.24, an agency spokeswoman said Thursday.

Graham brought this up in her Tacoma application letter:

“I am not aware of anything in my background that would embarrass Tacoma if it became public knowledge,” she wrote. “However, the press might make an issue of the fact that I am eligible to ‘double dip.’”

She told The News Tribune that although the pension enabled her to fulfill a long-held dream of retiring to Washington and building a home in Brinnon, she has decided retirement isn’t keeping her content.

“I find that I cannot sit at home,” she wrote in an email. “I have too much energy and too much passion for public service!”

Campbell, Blocker, Thoms, McCarthy and Lonergan voted to name Graham a finalist. Strickland, Mello, Ibsen and Walker Lee voted no.

Different backgrounds, different strengths

The News Tribune has verified that all four candidates have the postgraduate degrees they claimed.

The council did their own vetting of the candidates before they voted on finalists, Strickland said. The four come with a diversity of experience and different background strengths that give them each a certain appeal.

For Bauer: Fayetteville is a military town much like Tacoma, Strickland said, and Bauer has ties to Washington from going to school here and working in Shoreline.

For Bobkiewicz: Evanston is a secondary city to Chicago, like Tacoma is to Seattle, and has some similar features and challenges.

For Cowell: “With all the growth we’re having right now, someone with a planning background is interesting,” Strickland said.

For Graham: She spent much of her career working in Riverside, a bigger city than Tacoma, Strickland pointed out. “The council liked that she had an MBA and a lot of experience in economic development,” she said.

The four candidates will come to Tacoma on Thursday and Friday for interviews with the City Council, department heads, and for a public meet-and-greet.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud

Meet the finalists

What: reception and forum with finalists for Tacoma’s city manager job

When: Friday, from 5-7 p.m.

Where: Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St.