Ben McCready, Rock Island (IL) assistant to the city manager, adds to the ongoing series on assistant and deputy city and county managers by profiling the Assistant City Manager in SeaTac, WA.
Assistant City Manager
Gwen Voelpel serves as the Assistant City Manager for SeaTac, Washington where ELGL has recently expanded its presence. She holds a degree in Communications from The Evergreen State College and completed a Master of Public Administration from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her career in the public sector began at the Washington State Department of Revenue where she served as a Public Information Officer. Not long after she transitioned to local government where she served as Community Relations Specialist before being promoted to Assistant to the City Manager for Tacoma, Washington. In 2007 Gwen transitioned to the role of City Administrator for the City of Black Diamond. Since that time she has also fulfilled the role of Parks and Recreation Director and Chief Policy Advisory at Snoqualmie, WA before accepting her current position with the City of SeaTac.
You will find SeaTac exactly where you would suspect, between its larger neighbors of Seattle and Tacoma. The Council Manager community first incorporated in 1990 and utilized an old school as its first City Hall. While the City is home to 27,000 residents, it also includes the Seattle Tacoma International Airport operated by the Port of Seattle and is also the corporate headquarters of Alaska Airlines. You may remember SeaTac from its recent foray into national headlines at the forefront of a citizen referendum on the minimum wage for certain workers. For foodies, you might be intrigued to know that a group of professional vagabond foragers operate a warehouse out of Sea-Tac that supplies the trendiest restaurants around the country.
First concert you attended: AC/DC
(Complete the sentence) Before I die I want to… work for a non-profit organization that helps communities develop reliable sources of clean drinking water.
The TV show Parks and Rec – good or bad for government?
Good. I think it’s important to be able to see the fun in what we do as well as combat any perceptions that working for local government is dry and unrewarding. Plus I find Leslie Knope’s enthusiasm endearing—passion for her work and her community wakes her up each day with a smile on her face. (Full disclosure: My nickname was “Leslie” when I worked for the City of Snoqualmie as the Parks and Recreation Director.)
Best restaurant in SEATAC: The Pancake Chef in SeaTac…not just for breakfast, either.
Dream job as a child: Teacher
Longest public meeting you’ve been a part of?
I honestly can’t recall. I do know that there were City Council budget meetings at the City of Tacoma that could last for many hours and even regular Council meetings that went long. Frankly, I usually get so wrapped up in the deliberations that I lose track of time unless it’s really, really late.
Book you are currently reading:
Two: “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni and “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan
Q & A with Gwen
Your first local government job:
My first local government job was as a Community Relations Specialist at the City of Tacoma. I had worked for six years previously for state government in communications, but working for a city gave me the opportunity to really feel the impact of my work. I enjoyed all of the aspects of communications—writing, editing, designing, etc., plus had the great fortune of working with a dream team of professionals that won many awards while getting the messages to our residents that helped them fully access their city’s services. It was great work and it motivated me to earn my MPA and contribute to my city in a different capacity.
Passing Police Facilities Bond: In May 2001, the City of Tacoma was reeling from a devastating loss at the polls as I served as a Community Relations Specialist. The voters of Tacoma rejected four bond proposals with all but one bond receiving less than a 50 percent approval rating. The bonds would have financed pressing needs, including new police and fire facility construction, stadium and theater renovations, business district and neighborhood improvements and affordable housing development. The primary criticism from voters in the aftermath was that they weren’t involved in the decision-making process to determine what would appear on the ballot.
Recovering from the resounding defeat appeared daunting but not overwhelming. As an International Association for Public Participation student, I felt compelled to offer advice to my city manager and provide hope for an eventual turnaround at the polls. I sketched out a multi-level process to better gauge the interest of the citizens, rebuild the confidence of the City Council and ultimately prevail with the voters. We undertook the public participation process under the tagline: “Your city. Your say.”
The campaign called for initial public meetings to learn about residents’ priority concerns, a professional survey at two different milestones, a citizen advisory group and ultimately a recommendation to the Council to place a $34.3 million bond for police facilities on the February 2002 ballot. The process included a mid-point adjustment to add neighborhood substations to the initial headquarters-only project – an amendment in response to citizens’ wishes. The bond passed with a 68 percent approval rating. Although there were certainly other factors that contributed to the success, I believe the public participation effort was the essential element that tipped the scales in the City’s favor.
Creating “New” City Structure: While serving as the City Administrator in Black Diamond, I helped create policies, procedures and practices to support professional city management. With a supportive mayor, professional staff and forward-thinking Council, we made years-long progress in a very short period of time.
Accomplishments during my tenure include hiring qualified and professional staff and developing them during a period of unprecedented change; developing the first Capital Improvement Program (CIP) and implementing its first year; going live with new Geographical Information System (GIS), permit tracking, financial and police records management systems; instituting a professional budget process and financial reporting for Council and citizens as well as adopting the City’s first fiscal policies; negotiating the City’s first collective bargaining agreement and a supplemental Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for reduced wages with the police guild; updating and adopting comprehensive plans and development codes and bringing the City of Black Diamond out of 18-year moratoriums; conducting and implementing the first rate studies for City utilities; formalizing a professional agenda process; starting the first stormwater utility with associated rates for the first three years; putting a levy lid lift for public safety on the ballot; developing an economic development plan and marketing materials; creating the City’s first website and City-specific newsletter; and beginning the Environmental Impact (EIS) studies and application review for two master planned developments (MPDs) that will more than quadruple the size of the population if implemented.
The body of work at the City of Black Diamond, in total, was accomplished in under two years in a highly contentious environment with very few staff members.
Constructing and operating first community center: I joined the City of Snoqualmie as Parks & Recreation Director when the council and administration were attempting to realize a vision in place for more than two decades—the construction of the first community center in the Snoqualmie Ridge master planned development.
My entry into the position followed three failed votes that required a supermajority—one in 2002, and again in 2006 and 2008. The bonds would have built a much larger facility with a pool in land dedicated to the city by the developer of the Snoqualmie Ridge in a popular park central to the neighborhood.
The city then voted to go it alone with the $4 million it had on hand from developer mitigation and capital funds and it was my role to work with the YMCA on an operating agreement for the facility. We successfully negotiated a path forward, including governance and fee structures that were new territory for the YMCA.
In addition, I worked with the City Attorney and other staff on a lease-leaseback agreement for a private developer to construct the facility on City-owned land and they lease/purchase it back, thus removing liability for cost overruns from the city’s taxpayers. During the construction, we had weekly meetings with the construction firm, developer and YMCA to work through any issues as they arose and ensure the facility met the local needs—such as the need for emergency shelter abilities—as well as the programming needs of the YMCA.
The award-winning 13,000-square-foot center has been a huge success since it opened in January 2012. It has garnered considerable financial support from the Snoqualmie Tribe and State of Washington.
Tell us about three projects that you are currently working on.
Light rail development: Our regional transit provide, Sound Transit, is building the third light rail station in SeaTac and planning the extension further south beyond our borders. As the liaison to the agency, it’s an exciting time to be in SeaTac and see the tracks going up and station going in—and to think about the future development around the station. Plus it fits well with my duties to coordinate relations with the Washington State Legislature since one possible route would share the right-of-way purchased for a new state highway linking to and through our city. This is a super opportunity to practice good intergovernmental relations.
International airport negotiations: We are starting the negotiation of an interlocal agreement with Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. As the liaison to the airport—which is fully contained within our municipal boundaries-it is my responsibility to lead the negotiations. We have successfully negotiated such agreements with the airport in the past, but the challenges change with the times. It’s a great chance to not only work on policy analysis but also negotiating skills.
Organizational development coordination: I’m in charge of coordinating SeaTac’s foray into Lean Six Sigma. We’re about a year and a half into the effort and making great progress with vision, mission, values and goals and now working on department-level dashboards and more process improvement projects with four already being completed. It’s a great opportunity to put organizational development skills into practice.
Give us three tips for succeeding as an Assistant City Manager.
Take time to understand the team. Obviously it’s important to get to know your boss, your council, your staff and your community, It’s also important to see yourself as part of your city’s team and take the time to get to know staff at all levels. Take an interest in their success and it will be returned.
Be yourself. Bring your whole self to work every day—not who you think people expect to show up to be the second-in-command—and be fully present for those in front of you. People will sense your authentic leadership and respond well.
Relax but never coast. Even if you don’t have a desire to be a city or county manager, this profession is a marathon and your community needs you to be “on” all the time. Watch for opportunities to stretch so you can go the distance—it feels good to take on new challenges!
Your Local Government Mentors?
Dennis Okamoto, Regional Vice President of US West before becoming director of the Washington State Department of Revenue. Dennis and I ended up touring together to support the agency’s cultural diversity initiative and start its first multilingual program. Having the opportunity to work with such a polished professional was a blessing for someone so new to government, and I learned a lot by watching Dennis navigate relationships.
JJ McCament, now in the private sector with McCament and Rogers Real Estate Consulting, Sales and Marketing, worked for Weyerhaeuser before joining the Economic Development Department at the City of Tacoma. She was the first person I formally asked to mentor me. I admired her combination of grace and grit and her ability to find middle ground between the public and private sectors.
James L. Walton, former deputy city manager and city manager in Tacoma. Jim always approached situations with humility and humor. He was a leader who knew how to smile and put people at ease while always being genuine. I will always remember him telling me in a most stressful time, “Don’t let anyone steal your joy.” I take those words to work with me every day.
Marcia Isenberger of the YMCA of Greater Seattle, who was my partner in forming the relationship for the Snoqualmie Community Center. Marcia and I worked through many sticky situations between our organizations as we plowed new ground in this first-ever partnership, but Marcia always stayed in the conversation. She wasn’t afraid to take the time to find that elusive “Option C” that didn’t leave one organization feeling like they’d lost.
Pat Anderson, retired City Attorney for the City of Snoqualmie. Pat (and Planning Manager Nancy Tucker) committed to the community and had served there for more than 20 years when I joined them for my short stint. I truly respect Pat and Nancy for their unbelievable memories with seemingly instantaneous recall capabilities, but most of all for keeping the vision of the master planned community alive. When in question, they brought staff and council alike back to the vision and the intent—an important lesson for me as I address complex issues with significant impacts.
Finding the right work/life balance is a constant struggle for many of us, what is your approach to maintaining your personal life while leading a successful professional career?
Recognizing what has to be done now and what can be let go or at least delayed. You can’t do it all or be it all for everyone all the time but you can be there when it matters—whether that’s choosing to make your presentation at a Council retreat when you have a teenager at home with a low-level illness or choosing to reschedule a meeting to attend a child’s awards ceremony at school. Focus on what matters most in that moment. And absolutely no regrets allowed!
(Complete the sentence) Local government is……the best place to work if your heart and your head are fed by working on complex issues and getting to see how your work impacts your community every day. Local government also is a good fit if you have a soft heart but thick skin.
ELGL is hosting its second annual conference in October, help us out by suggesting three topics of speakers we should include.
- The attributes of healthy organizations and how to achieve them.
- Critical/crucial conversations and how to have them successfully.
- Policy trends in human services delivery on federal/state/county/city level.
If we ever encounter you on an interview panel, give us a few specific tips for making a good impression.
Show that you understand that local government is a great place to make a difference. Show an excitement for learning what it takes to help your community—let me hear your motivation isn’t about pay, benefits or job stability but the work itself. Come off confident but not cocky, because no one has all the answers. And smile and interact with everyone—you don’t come to work “for” the boss. You come to work “with” the team.
What does local government management look like in 2020?
Relations will be even more collaborative than today to cover the gaps in services that are ever increasing due to dwindling federal and state funding. That collaboration will grow to cover more services that support the needy, including mentally ill, and safeguard the safety of our citizens.
Finally, would you encourage your children to consider local government as a career?
Yes, but I always respect that they have their own paths and interest—nursing, real estate, financial planning and neuroscience to be more specific. Those are all good fields and I would be pleased if they were successful in their own careers as well as good citizens engaged in their communities.
What questions should we have asked you?
How do you transition from a successful career in a different field in government to city management?
What mark are you trying to make on the profession?
How do you recover when your career takes a blow?