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Covington's Matheson moves to bigger role as Kent chief administrative officer
By Eric Mandel
Derek Matheson will resign as the Covington city manager to take on a larger role as the city of Kent chief administrative officer.
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.
Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke hired Matheson for the city's top appointed position. He will take on day-to-day operations for the city of 121,400 residents and 630 employees. He will oversee economic development, finance, human resources, parks, police and six other departments.
In his email to Covington city 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."
He will start his new job Aug. 11. His last day with Covington will be Aug. 8, though he said his final day in the office is 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 receive a salary of $167,000 per year. While Matheson reported to the Covington City Council as city manager, he will report to the mayor in his new role.
"I'm going to miss Covington tremendously," Matheson said during an interview. "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, 'whoa, 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 persuaded 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 in May 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, 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 city of Kent spokeswoman Michelle Wilmot.
The city hired an executive search firm for $60,000 to recruit for the full-time position as well as a new finance director. The city received 93 applicants for the CAO job.
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."
BeMiller new finance director
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. He will receive a salary of $110,000 per year.
BeMiller previously worked as the Pierce County budget manager for six years, where he oversaw an $894 million annual operating and capital budget. He has a decade of municipal government experience with Seattle and Renton, including as a financial analyst for Seattle Center. BeMiller has a bachelor's degree from Western Washington University in Bellingham and a MPA from Seattle University.
BeMiller begins in Kent on July 24. He will oversee the city’s financial operations, including a 33-employee department.
Reach Eric Mandel at email@example.com.