Politics & Government

She runs this town now. So who is Elizabeth Pauli?

Elizabeth Pauli, long-time city attorney, is Tacoma's newly hired city manager.
Elizabeth Pauli, long-time city attorney, is Tacoma's newly hired city manager. phaley@thenewstribune.com

When it became clear that the finalists for Tacoma’s open city manager job were less than ideal, the City Council turned to a familiar face.

City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli had not sought the position and was nervous that she could even do the job. But after some cajoling, Pauli, who served as the city’s interim manager in the wake of T.C. Broadnax’s departure, agreed to give it a try.

It was a relief to a council faced with a slate of imperfect candidates.

“I just felt like there was no one (finalist) that made me say, ‘Wow, this is worth having Elizabeth not do the job,’” Councilman Robert Thoms said recently. “To me, she was already setting the bar. These three people would have been different than her, but they wouldn’t have been better, so I was excited about the idea that we should go back to her.”

Many people familiar with the inner workings of City Hall told The News Tribune that Pauli is a solid choice. Council members said they like her experience, familiarity and longtime commitment to Tacoma. They called her smart, hardworking and responsive.

But she also brings some baggage of her own, including at least one lingering legal matter that could see her deposed some time in the near future.

Pauli, the first woman ever appointed to the city’s top job, said she understands the added scrutiny her new position brings.

“Certainly, as city attorney, I own the decisions I’m responsible for, and I understand that criticism comes with different decisions,” she said.

Shy by nature, Pauli said she also understands she must now take a more visible role in a position responsible for more than 2,000 employees and a biennial general budget of $1.9 billion.

“I recognize clearly the distinction between the roles, and one of the important distinctions is getting out into the community more,” Pauli said. “Frankly, at heart, I’m a fairly shy person, but on the other hand, again, I clearly recognize that is an essential part of this role, and I always respond to calls to duty.”

Pauli will be paid $237,348.80 a year – a 5 percent increase from her pay as city attorney. That’s less than Broadnax was making when he left Tacoma, but more than what he was paid when he started out here.

The council approved her contract at Tuesday’s meeting. Because she’s not relocating, Pauli won’t be paid moving expenses (Broadnax got $25,000 to relocate, plus a $20,000 “housing equalization allowance”). She has also asked to waive a $550 monthly car stipend, but the city will pay to continue her professional license, so she can continue to practice law.

Her contract goes until May 15, 2019.

A weak field boosted Pauli

Current and former elected officials have heaped praise on Pauli.

A number of council members said Pauli thrived in the few months she served as interim manager. She was appointed to that temporary position when Broadnax left in January for a job in Dallas.

They credited her with successfully overseeing budget adjustments and helping to develop an emergency sheltering plan for the city’s homeless population during that time.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland asked Pauli at the outset to apply for the job permanently, but she declined, saying she didn’t think she had the right experience.

So a nationwide search, led by consultant Colin Baenziger & Associates, ensued. The firm said it would charge a flat fee of $24,500 to find the city’s next manager.

A pool of applicants eventually was culled down to five finalists in early May, but that list was trimmed to four at the urging of Councilman Joe Lonergan. That vote resulted in the only person of color, Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, being dropped from consideration.

The remaining four were brought to Tacoma for two days of interviews with council members, city staff and the public.

The council scheduled a special Saturday meeting to select from one of them. Instead, it extended an offer to Pauli, who was by then more receptive.

“I was receiving encouragement to reconsider, and I did not expect that, and I have always throughout my career very carefully considered the counsel I get from others,” she said. “Even though I’ve acted as counselor, it’s important for me to listen to counsel, and I started listening.”

Some City Hall observers said they understood the council’s decision to approach Pauli again.

Both former Mayor Bill Baarsma and former councilman David Boe said Pauli seemed to be a better candidate than any in the final group, the quality of which might have been influenced by the fact that five council seats, including the mayor’s, are up for election this year. Because of term limits, only one elected incumbent (Thoms) is running.

Those wide open races create a tenuous political situation for city manager candidates, who serve at the will of the council.

“I definitely think that plays into” who applied for the job, Boe said. “These city managers reaching this level understand how it works, and it’s kind of like, ‘Well, yeah, if there are going to be potentially five new members on a nine-member council, hmmm.’”

What’s more, Pauli is highly qualified, said Baarsma, who called her one of the smartest people he’s worked with.

She wouldn’t be the first city manager hired from within the city’s ranks, nor the first without city manager experience, he added.

Baarsma said when he was mayor, Pauli would “spend quality time going over the subtleties, nuances, unintended consequences of taking a particular action or not.”

“Solid legal advice, always immediately responsive, always prepared, very thoughtful, very analytical, very good mind,” Baarsma said. “It just remains to be seen how comfortable she is and how skilled she’ll be outside of her realm.”

Not always successful

Her legal work on behalf of the city for the last 19 years has not always resulted in success.

The city’s legal team has been on the losing side of some expensive and highly publicized cases during her time at the helm.

Just in the last few weeks, the city was ordered to pay $2 million to the developer of Tacoma’s Walmart after a U.S. District Court judge said the city was wrong to apply a moratorium on big box stores to that project.

The developer also has been awarded attorney’s fees, and plaintiff’s attorney Anthony Rafel has said he plans to ask for more than $1 million. The city said it will appeal the decision.

Last Friday, a Pierce County judge said Pauli could be questioned by an opposing attorney in a case where the city is being sued for blacking out large portions of records that an activist group requested through public disclosure. Pauli said last fall that many of those redactions were mistakenly made by someone in her office.

That case, brought by Save Tacoma Water, remains active.

This past Tuesday, two legal settlements that add up to more than $1 million were brought before the council for approval.

The city’s legal department also has been criticized for its handling of a long-running billboard dispute.

The council tried to outlaw billboards in certain areas and get them removed, but it ended up locked in a years-long legal standoff with the billboards owners.

To try to prevent further expensive court battling, there has been an ongoing standstill agreement in place between the city and the advertiser. Most of the billboards haven’t been taken down – a point of serious frustration for some residents who say they’re an eyesore and dangerous.

Pauli told The News Tribune her job as city attorney was to advise the City Council and try to advance its interests and desires in legal fights.

All she could do in some cases was give the council information and advise its members of the legal risks of taking certain actions, she said. Sometimes, council members felt taking a legal action was worth the financial risk, she added.

“I’m glad the citizens are watching and paying attention, actually. What my goal has been is to feel that I have given the client sound advice and that they’ve had a full understanding of the risk associated with decisions that they need to make, and sometimes it’s less that the client isn’t following your advice – it’s sometimes more the case that they’re just accepting a certain level of risk in their decision making,” Pauli said.

She also was part of one of the darkest episodes in Tacoma history.

Pauli was the chief assistant city attorney when Tacoma Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife and then killed himself in front of their two children in 2003.

She was in a meeting the day before the shooting in which the lead city attorney at the time and the head of human resources allegedly discussed the possibility of taking Brame’s gun and badge. What was said during that meeting remains in dispute to this day.

Pauli said that tragedy, and the ensuing fallout in city government, taught her many lessons. She and the city attorney decided to waive attorney-client privilege so they could talk publicly about that meeting, a decision she said she’s proud of.

“To increase the level of transparency in that situation that was so critical to our citizens and the legal department, I was 100 percent behind that, and so I think that was something that I remember as a very positive aspect of a really negative situation,” she said.

Three decades in Tacoma

Pauli, who is 57, came to Tacoma almost 30 years ago. She moved here fresh out of law school, with her young sons in tow, to start her career, she said.

She was born in Pullman, raised outside of Portland in the suburb of Lake Oswego and later moved with her family to Madison, Wisconsin. She remained in Madison for college, earning bachelor’s degrees in social work and education from the University of Wisconsin and went on to pursue her law degree there.

From Wisconsin, she and her family moved to New Orleans, where she finished law school as a visiting student.

“We didn’t necessarily want to raise our children there, and I came out to visit relatives in this area over Christmas break, and ended up being introduced to someone at … a local law firm here and was offered a job, so we came out for that job,” Pauli said.

That law firm was McGavick Graves. Pauli said she spent 10 years in the private sector before coming to work for the city as a deputy city attorney in 1998.

What’s to come

Pauli said she’s excited about the challenge of her new job and wants to help the council and the city achieve the goals set out in Tacoma 2025, the city’s visioning road map.

“It’s not my role as city manager to establish a vision separate from that that is the council and community’s vision,” she said. “My job is to assist the council in adopting and then work with our team to implement policies and practices that put that vision into play for the community.”

Specifically, Pauli said she wants to engage the segments of Tacoma that aren’t showing up to council meetings to speak their mind, perhaps because they’re not comfortable doing that, don’t have time or can’t get there.

“We know that there is a segment of our community that we’re not hearing from, that we haven’t figured out how to engage,” she said. “It’s equally important to us to figure that out and reach those segments of our community and determine how we can best engage with them and involve them in our decision-making processes.”

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud