Gig Harbor city administrator Denny Richards didn’t think he would be leaving the city at the end of the year.
“The change certainly wasn’t expected,” he said. “A bit of a shock, but that’s the way it goes, I guess.”
Richards’ departure after two years in the job was announced in a prepared statement by Mayor Jill Guernsey at the April 14 council meeting. The mayor notified city employees of her decision that morning, according to an email sent to city staff. Richards said he knew of the decision earlier in the month.
A new city position that specializes on economic development will shift into the administrator role at the beginning of 2015.
According to the mayor’s prepared statement at the council meeting, “My decision has not been an easy one, nor was it made lightly, however, I remain committed to the need to be proactive with respect to the economic development needs of the entire city.”
Guernsey wouldn’t comment Monday afternoon when asked by the Gateway, saying she did not feel comfortable discussing personnel issues.
Now on the way out, Richards, 70, reflected on his two years in the administrator chair in Gig Harbor. He said that, to him, his legacy will be boosting the city’s spirits and improving customer service.
“One of my goals was to get people back to a higher level of morale,” he said.
Richards said he prefers not to micromanage and aimed to bring honesty and trust to his position. He said he’s been managing people since 1978, when he made lieutenant in the Gig Harbor police force.
“I’d say that’s just my style,” Richards said Monday. “I think I was always positive about the workplace and people could trust me.”
He said he is known for his calm demeanor and clear instructions.
“(Employees) understand what I expect,” he said. “That’s to be at work every day ready to do your job.”
Guernsey echoed that sentiment in her statement to council: “... Denny is respected and appreciated by all of you for his accomplishments and for working hard to restore morale. He has wisely promoted several employees to key positions and those employees are doing great things for our city.”
Richards will be replaced by a yet-to-be named successor at the end of the year. Before the switch in leadership, the newcomer will be working in economic development for the city and will be trained on the job by Richards. That will be a new experience for the longtime public employee, but Richards said he is ready for it. Still, there’s a learning curve. Richards said he benefitted from institutional knowledge of the area. When he was patrolling on the police force years ago, he would stop and chat with city residents to hear their concerns.
“It takes time to learn (the city),” he said. “That doesn’t happen overnight.”
Gig Harbor operates under a strong mayor form of government and Guernsey has the authority to make administrative decisions without council approval.
“It was a surprise because we had a meeting of myself and my senior staff on Jan. 9 and the mayor made it very clear I was the city administrator of the future,” Richards told the News Tribune.
By April, Guernsey changed her mind and told Richards she wouldn’t renew his contract.
Earlier this year, Guernsey asked the council to add a full-time economic development manager position to the city’s 2014 budget.
Guernsey’s proposal had attracted critics both in the community and on the council. Some council members questioned the necessity of adding a position.
“I just don’t think hiring an economic development administrator is any kind of solution for our downtown problem, if there even is any problem in our downtown,” Councilman Ken Malich told the News Tribune.
“Downtowns don’t survive very well when you have big-box stores on the outskirts for citizens to go to.”
Guernsey, who had previously tabled her proposal for an economic development manager, brought back a revised version Monday.
A new job description and reduction in salary earned the support it needed to pass. The council voted 6-1 to add the position. Malich was the lone dissenter.
The amended job description also made Guernsey’s motives clear: She wanted to bring in a new city administrator focused on economic development downtown.
“Historically, a new mayor comes in and puts their own city administrator into that position. The last three mayors have done that,” longtime Councilman Steve Ekberg said.
The amended proposal lowered the salary for the economic development position from $120,000 to a range between $63,000 and $78,000. When the new hire transitions to city administrator in 2015, the salary would increase to about $130,000.
Under his contract, Richards will receive three months’ pay as part of a severance package when he leaves. He makes $130,000 a year.
Richards was city manager in Kelso before returning to Gig Harbor in 2012. Richards was the city’s police chief from 1987 to 1995. He came on board as city administrator under Mayor Chuck Hunter. A resident of Fox Island, Richards plans to stay in the community he calls home.