My Story with Derek Matheson, Kent (WA) Chief Administrative Officer

Posted on November 25, 2014

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ELGL’s mission is to connect, communicate, and educate. One way to do that is by “telling the story” on how we got here, why we’re still here, and how we can improve local government. We first profile Derek Matheson, Kent (WA) Chief Administrative Officer. Thanks to Dave O’Leary, Shelton (WA) city manager for recommending that we connect with Derek.

My Story

Derek Matheson

download (5)City of Kent, WA – Chief Administrative Officer

I started working in local government……

thanks to a magazine article.  I was a college student working at the Bellevue (WA) public library when I came across a copy of ICMA’s “Public Management” magazine.  Back then, the magazine profiled a different manager inside the back cover every month.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do after college, but I found I had a lot in common with the manager in the story.  It led me to pursue an MPA from the University of Washington and to look for an internship in local government. The rest is history.

My first experience in local government was…..

an unpaid internship at the City of Federal Way, Washington.  I joined the city a week after the city council voted unanimously to terminate the city’s police services contract with King County and form a city police department.  I worked with an interim police chief, administrative assistant, and interdepartmental team to set up the new department over 17 months.  I did everything from working on the staffing model to attaching license plates to new police cars.

mg_1730webMy most frustrating local government experience was..

during the Great Recession when the Covington, Washington, city council and I had to reduce the city’s budget by millions of dollars and lay off 15 to 20 percent of our workforce.  I felt like, if I were a better city manager, I would have been able to protect my staff better.  (Of course that wasn’t true, but that’s how I felt.)

A close second was when Covington voters defeated a small sales-tax increase for transportation and public safety by 39 votes.  (That’s 39 actual votes, not 39 percentage points.)  A citizen committee had worked for over nine months to craft the ballot measure, and a campaign committee had worked hard to sell it to the voters.  I believe the council plans to put the measure back on the ballot in spring 2015 in hopes that a slightly different electorate sees the plan more favorably.

My top three career accomplishments are:

planningtowardgreatnessHelping transform Covington from a semi-rural community into an urban/suburban city.  We created sub-area plans for a mixed-use town center and an automobile-oriented retail district.  We successfully recruited a Costco, Home Depot, and other high-quality retailers and grew the city’s tax base significantly.  (In Washington, a typical Costco generates about a half-million dollars per year in city sales-tax revenue.)  We also invested tens of millions of dollars in transportation and parks infrastructure.

Helping Covington create a sustainable budget during the Great Recession. Through bold actions early in the recession, we were able to put the city on solid financial footing and rebuild General Fund reserves to 58% of annual revenues by early 2014.  We were the only city in Washington to receive a spontaneous bond-rating upgrade from Moody’s Investor Services in 2014.

Overseeing the design and construction of a new city hall, police department, and municipal court in Federal Way — on time and under budget.

Right now, I am working on…

Getting to know my new community.  I took over as chief administrative officer at the City of Kent, Washington, in August 2014.  I’m currently getting to know the mayor, council, leadership team, staff, volunteers, and community, as well as the key opportunities and challenges.  I’m also getting to know a new form of government, as this is my first time as the top appointed official in a strong mayor city.  I’m learning the art of working withthe council but for the mayor.

imagesHelping create a sustainable budget.  Kent’s service-delivery model dates back to the 1960s and 70s when the American economy was booming, state sales-tax laws favored warehousing communities like Kent, and tax-limiting initiatives were a couple decades away.  All three of these factors have changed but the city’s service-delivery model has not — which means there’s a new budget shortfall every year.  As if that weren’t challenging enough, Kent relies heavily on state-shared revenue, and the Washington State Legislature is poised to take millions of dollars from cities and counties to balance the state’s disastrous budget.  We’re going to spend next year’s council retreat talking about how we can involve residents in a discussion of what the city’s service-delivery model should look like in the future.  Do residents want to pay significantly higher taxes and fees to sustain what we have, or do they want to scale back?

Creating a document-routing system.  Unlike most cities, Kent doesn’t have formal routing systems for agenda bills, contracts, personnel actions, and other key documents.  I’m working with the leadership team to create a formal process to route these documents through affected departments and me before they go into the council’s packet or onto the mayor’s desk for signature.

Here are three ways to impress me in an interview:

  1. Be professional.  Show up on time, dress nicely, smile warmly, have a firm handshake, and demonstrate both confidence and humility.
  2. Be passionate.  I believe passion is necessary to be successful at anything in this world.  Show me you have a passion for the city and your profession.
  3. Be on point.  Use specific examples to show me you’re a hard worker, you’re ethical, your education and experience align with the city’s needs, and you can play nicely with others.

I am afraid of…

picgifs-children-demolition-697282I’m afraid the legislature is going to cut state-shared revenues so quickly that cities are going to have to downsize their budgets overnight without adequate public process or employee engagement. Doing so could create lasting damage and loss of trust between cities and residents and between cities and employee groups.

Also, I have four kids age 8 and younger so sometimes I’m afraid to go home at the end of the work day.  (I’m just kidding — they’re great kids.)

In terms of telling the local government story, I think local government….

does a pretty good job.  I firmly believe there’s a point of diminishing returns where providing more information and engagement opportunities doesn’t necessarily produce a more informed or engaged community.  People are busy and tend to engage only when necessary to advance or protect their self-interests.  The key is to create information and engagement opportunities on every major project in hopes there will be people for whom that project is in their self-interests.  It’s also key to communicate through a variety of media — traditional media, social media, and old-fashioned person-to-person contact.  In Kent we need to communicate better through foreign-language media, as well.

For the next person that you interview, I would ask….

download (6)why they’re passionate about local government.  I’m passionate about it because there’s really no other industry where you can draw a circle around a relatively small number of square miles and be relevant to every single person and organization inside that circle.  I’m also passionate about it because local government is small enough where one well-intentioned person (and the opposite, unfortunately) can make a difference.

You should have asked me….

what I do to give back to the profession that has treated me so well.  I currently serve on the Washington City/County Management Association‘s Board of Directors and co-chair the King County City Managers/Administrators Group.  I’ve hired an number of interns over the years to “pay it forward” and I’m always happy to talk with anyone who’s interested in city management and/or local government.

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