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Derek Matheson resigns as Covington City Manager | Updated
Covington City Manager Derek Matheson has announced his resignation from the position to take on a larger role in the city of Kent.
Matheson, who spent more than seven years in the post, announced his resignation to City Council and staff via phone and email on Monday.
“We’re in mourning,” said Sharon Scott, Matheson’s executive assistant.
Matheson has been named Kent’s Chief Administrative Officer, the city’s top appointed position, taking on day-to-day operations for the city of 121,400 residents and 630 employees. In his email to staff, Matheson said the resignation came with a “mixture of excitement and sadness.” He called the switch “a great opportunity to move up in my career without having to move my family.” His last day with the city will be August 8, though he said his last days in the office will be July 25 so that he can spend time with his family before starting the new job.
Matheson, who received his Bachelor’s degree and Master of Public Administration from the University of Washington, will reportedly make $167,000 per year. While Matheson reported to the City Council as city manager, he will report to the mayor in his new role.
“I’m going to miss Covington tremendously,” Matheson told The Reporter. “It’s just a great community. The city staff feels like a family and it’s hard to leave them behind, but Kent is a great city, it’s a tremendous opportunity in my career and a great fit for my family.”
Matheson was hired in 1997 after 12 mild-mannered years in his home city of Federal Way, working as assistant city manager. At the time, the city of Covington was in a crisis, looking for a new image after asking then-City Manager Andy Dempsey to resign. Margaret Harto was in her first year as the city’s mayor when Matheson interviewed for the vacancy. After being apart of “rapid fire, almost defensive conversations” with Dempsey, Harto remembers watching in awe as Matheson would sit and listen, paraphrase the question at hand and return a calm, measured and thoughtful response.
“It was like, ‘woah, where did this come from?’” Harto said. “The council actually had to get used to that. As a result, it calmed the council down in a way that allowed them to be more comfortable in their roles.”
City staff and council members embraced Matheson’s even-mannered and respectful leadership style. Harto remarked at Matheson’s quiet self-confidence and ability to provide a balance of work and family for his staff. Harto said taking a chance on the then 31-year-old couldn’t have worked out better.
“There wasn’t an expectation that he didn’t surpass in many, many different ways,” she said. “It’s only natural that he would want to move on in his profession.”
Harto said Matheson joined the city when it needed great leadership and an overhaul to its reputation.
“I think he’s done an absolutely outstanding job,” Harto said. “He is the very best.”
Matheson wrote that he is “incredibly proud” of his accomplishments in Covington — growing the economy, building new streets and parks and expanding services to meet the needs of a growing community. He told The Reporter that he took particular pride in recruiting Costco to the city.
“Within the month that I started here they announced that the Covington deal was dead,” Matheson said. “By working together and being creative we resurrected that deal. It brought a long sought after store to Covington.”
But not everything went as smoothly as Matheson would have liked. He expressed disappointment that the city never convinced the legislature to appropriate funds to the widening of Kent-Kangley Road near Home Depot and that the park system and police departments haven’t seen more growth in the wake of the city’s residential and business expansion.
“The recession made that difficult,” Matheson said. “But I’m happy that we didn’t cut any police staff during that recession.”
Matheson credited a “great vision and great plan” for Covington’s success under his watch and expects more positive’s in the future through development of Covington Town Center and Hawk Property projects.
Matheson said he’d never applied for another job at any point during his tenure in Covington.
“When the Kent opportunity came along, it was just something I couldn’t pass up,” he said.
Kent is the third biggest city in King County and sixth largest in the state. Its previous full-time CAO, John Hodgson, retired May 31 of 2013 after seven years in the position. Hodgson was credited with leading Kent city government through the worst recession in decades, a demographic shift and large population growth.
Rather than make a new hire during an election year, Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke opted against immediately pursuing a replacement, shifting City Attorney Tom Brubaker to the interim role and appointing Pat Fitzpatrick to the acting city attorney spot.
“We had a bunch of shifting going on here,” said Michelle Wilmot, Kent’s Community & Public Affairs Manager.
The city hired an executive search firm to recruit for the full-time position. Besides naming Matheson as CAO, Cooke also appointed Aaron BeMiller as finance director. BeMiller is the budget and finance director/county treasurer for Clatsop County, Oregon.
When called by the search firm, Harto said she had some difficulties coming up with any of Matheson’s “weaknesses.”
“I said, ‘I knew you were going to ask me that question and I’ve been trying to think real hard, because he is just an excellent role model for his profession,’” she said.
Cooke said in a press release that Matheson brings over 20 years of experience as a city leader and has a passion for local government management.
“In Covington he has improved the city’s organizational culture and reputation, strengthened its finances and implemented numerous economic development programs,” she said in the release.
When contacted by The Reporter, Cooke also applauded Matheson’s ability to build consensus in a professional manner by empowering others in leadership roles.
“Derek will leave his own mark on Kent for as many years as he chooses to be in the position of Chief Administrative Officer,” she said.
Cooke added that she believes Matheson is the person who will best help Kent “grow gracefully.”
“His belief in what’s possible here in the city of Kent, which he has worked around all these years, combined with the skills he’s developed over the years, really made him shine as the ideal candidate,” Cooke said.
Matheson said he sees Kent as a strong, growing community with vibrant neighborhoods.
“I’m not going to Kent with an agenda,” he said. “I’m going with an open mind and open ears.”
Matheson was named The Reporter’s Best Public Official in 2013 and also received an award for skill and intergovernmental cooperation from the Washington City/County Management Association. He was elected to the 2014 Board of Directors for the Sound City Association and Washington City/County Management Association.
Matheson said he plans to stay in Kent “for a long time.”
“If you look at my career… I’m not someone who moved around a lot,” he said. “I like to get to know a community and make a difference there.”
Matheson said he met with Harto and Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Wagner Monday morning to discuss internal and external options for the interim position. He expects the council may need an executive session or two before making a decision. Harto agreed.
“At this point we’re still trying to absorb the shock of the change,” she said. “Not that we didn’t all expect it someday. I think we all knew he would one day go on to greater things. And we applaud him for it… We know what to look for in a good city manager.”
Harto said she is excited about beginning the process and expects a decision “as soon as reasonably possible.”
“If there’s nothing else we learned from Derek it’s to take your time to do it right,” she said.