City manager search: You can’t always get what you want | Bob Roegner

Neal Beets is a good and decent man who tried his best to be a successful city manager for Federal Way.

But the fact that he came up short may be as much a reflection of a flawed process and the political dynamics in play at the time of his selection as well as his weaknesses.

David Moseley was the city manager in 2005. Moseley was a skilled and respected administrator. He had been a department head for the City of Seattle, then city manager in Steilacoom and Ellensburg prior to moving up the management ladder to Federal Way. Moseley was a strong leader who took the council’s policy direction and made it happen. Some say, too strong.

Over the years, some council members chafed under criticism, accurate or not, that they were a rubber stamp for Moseley and they wanted to play a more influential role. An undercurrent in council elections that year was the role of the city manager.

Moseley took the political intrigue out of the issue by accepting a job with a consulting firm.

Assistant city manager Derek Matheson was named acting manager as the council selected a professional search firm to recruit and screen applicants. Many now believe that process was flawed from the very beginning. They suggest that what the council members said they wanted, and what they really wanted, may have been two different things.

With its fluid political dynamics, diversity of power brokers, established organizational influence and several longtime strong-willed department heads, Federal Way would be a challenge for even the most seasoned managers. Significant executive level experience, political sophistication, and knowledge of the local and regional political culture were what was needed.

But the council wanted the anti-Moseley. Some members of the Federal Way City Council wanted a manager they could individually influence, not a strong leader and policy partner. Some council members had higher political aspirations and needed to demonstrate individual success. Others had different ideas of what should and shouldn’t get built or funded. And some just needed the ego satisfaction that comes with spreading their wings outside the city manager’s influence. A smaller number wanted the best city manager they could find. To some city insiders, there was a worry that “pro-strong mayor” forces were pushing for a “weak” manager to “set up” a vote to abolish the city manager system.

Some talented candidates never made it past the council’s sub-committee. Other potential candidates were never contacted to apply. Four of the finalists were from outside the state. The fifth candidate was assistant city manager Derek Matheson.

Matheson was well liked, but the consensus was that he needed more seasoning in a smaller city before he would be ready for the “big time” that Federal Way represented. The general view was that overall, it was a weak field with borderline experience credentials.

Beets emerged as the strongest candidate by most citizen representatives who participated in the selection process. Beets won points with his low-key style, and his description of himself as a “servant leader” appealed to some council members’ personal goals. His background included five years as the city manager of Roseville, Minn., and time as a city attorney in Arizona.

The majority of the council wanted an “outsider” with no local or regional contacts or experience, and with no political or personal support system. As one council member noted, “that’s like tying one arm behind your back.” It might work in a small city, but not here, and it put a heavy burden on the council for patience, guidance and support — a role only a few embraced.

Without knowing it, Beets came into a situation with most of the cards stacked against him. He tried hard and had some success but his failure, if it can be called that, can be traced to goals and dynamics his experience didn’t prepare him for.

The council got what it wanted, but not what the city may have needed — and a look in the mirror may provide an uncomfortable reflection.

There’s nothing sinister in politics, and competing goals affect a selection process. It happens in many cities, even more so in cities with a strong mayor form of government. What will the city council do this time? So far, the signals are mixed. Let’s hope they make the right choice.