Opinion

City manager's departure marks the end of an era in Federal Way | Bob Roegner

The Neal Beets era as Federal Way’s city manager came to a quiet end last week with the city council voting 5-2 to approve a separation agreement. Council members Linda Kochmar and Jeanne Burbidge voted no.

The item was added to the council’s agenda late and was so low-key, most of the large crowd in attendance wasn’t fully aware of what was actually happening. Despite the appearance, this was not a quick decision or an overnight decision.

It was a decision whose seeds were sown almost from the beginning and continued to grow without successful resolution. To most who follow local political issues and watch City Hall, this wasn’t even a surprise. Over his short tenure, Beets and the city council never seemed to quite mesh.

Several longtime staff members left, creating leadership vacuums. And while some change is expected under a new manager, a couple of departures raised red flags. Also, there were ongoing issues of communication with the council and administrative staff. The loss of former finance director Iwen Wang to Renton was particularly noticeable as it deprived Beets of a key person who was trusted and respected by the council. With her liaison skills missing, the council’s comfort level declined. Behind-the-scenes discussions seemed to indicate that three council members may have been leaning toward change last summer, while others were opposed and favored additional time for Beets to show improvement.

During last fall’s budget deliberations, several council members expressed frustration with Beets’ approach and proposals, as they didn’t seem to reflect the council’s long-range financial concern regarding the economy and cash reserves. The deterioration of the first-quarter sales tax projection concerned some council members and alarmed others.

There was also an undercurrent of concern about initiatives such as the proposed performing arts center, as some council members felt that it was moving too fast, and that Beets and the citizens committee were too far ahead of the council. Some on the council saw the $50 million project as the embodiment of its fiscal frustration and economic concern. On the other hand, the citizens committee under Beets’ leadership contained a lot of influential community members, and the state Legislature had come forward with money to help. As a result, some council members felt “boxed in” to a project they were fiscally uncomfortable with, and felt Beets should have reined the committee in and lowered expectations.

In the past few months, a majority of the council felt a growing concern. Beets, who may have suspected his support was declining, forced the issue by asking for an early reading on whether his contract would be renewed. The feedback wasn’t good.

Council members were quick to note that Beets’ departure was not a termination, but a decision not to renew his contract, and that the overriding issue was that it just may not have been a “good fit.” To some, this sounds like a “political spin” to put a good face on a painful decision. During Beets’ time here, many citizens found him likable and approachable, appreciated his interest in trying to reach out to the community — and were surprised by the decision. But to others, it seemed that he and the city council consistently struggled to get on the same page.

While the conclusion that this wasn’t a termination is a stretch, the characterization that it just wasn’t a “good fit” may be accurate. But if so, that may not have been all Neal Beets’ fault. More on that later.

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