A decision by city of Kent leaders to lay off a popular Neighborhood Program coordinator and add two more communication coordinators caught at least a few people by surprise.
The city laid off Toni Azzola, who has overseen the Neighborhood Program since 2007, in early May. That decision was prior to the city budget cuts announced in late May by Mayor Dana Ralph because of declining tax revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Eleven employees were eliminated as part of that cutback, with their final day July 1.
“Oh no! I did not know,” said Sharon Bersaas, Mill Creek Neighborhood Council president, in a Monday email to the Kent Reporter. “It’s terrible. It will have a huge impact on the city of Kent’s Neighborhood Program. The program was initiated to build neighborhood cohesion and for neighborhood improvement. I have worked with Toni since 2006 and we joined the neighborhood program in 2007.”
Derek Matheson, city chief administrative officer, said it was a decision to improve the city’s communication with residents. Administration will double its communications staff to four, with a manager and three coordinators.
“We have taken the vacant position vacated by Toni Azzola and converted it to a communications coordinator position which we will fill in June,” Matheson said in his June 16 written report to the City Council. “Additionally, we are moving Tracey Padilla from HR (Human Resources) to Administration where she will also serve as a communications coordinator. This move will create additional communications coverage for departments who have had significant need while also providing us more opportunities to share positive stories about the city.”
The Neighborhood Program, which Azzola grew from a handful of members to 50, will continue under the leadership of Uriel Varela, hired a couple of years ago as a communications coordinator.
“Uriel has worked with our cultural communities since he joined the city a couple years ago and will add Neighborhood Councils to his portfolio,” Matheson said in an email. “It’s a natural fit because there’s overlap between the two programs. He is already working to build relationships with and provide support to our active Neighborhood Councils. Any neighborhoods that are interested in joining the program or any existing councils that want to get to know Uriel better can call our office at 253-856-5700.”
Former Mayor Suzette Cooke started the Neighborhood Program to help residents form councils in order to work closer with city officials to promote events, resolve issues and receive small grants for projects.
Bersaas said the Mill Creek council used a grant to help with its plaque and book project, “A Community of Historic Homes.” Residents began to fix up their home and yards and in 2014 a subset of the neighborhood became the City of Kent Historic District.
“Experience Historical Kent, A Tour of Historic Venues in Kent, is taking place in the month of August,” Bersaas said. “It started under Toni’s watch with the Mill Creek Neighborhood and The Kent Historical Society and has grown to 14 historic venues, and now is under the umbrella of the Kent Museum and the city of Kent.”
Bersaas watched Azzola grow the council program. Each time a new neighborhood joined, it would be recognized in front of the City Council.
“Many other neighborhoods joined the program, achieving many neighborhood goals, like fixing up parks, and creating parks on land designated for parks with sweat equity and grants,” Bersaas said. “These projects helped to build neighborhood cohesion and improved neighborhoods at the same time. And all were done under Toni Azzola’s steady watch. I have worked with Toni for many years and found her to be a wonderful conduit between the city of Kent and Kent’s neighborhoods. She has been a complete pleasure to work with. I fear for the Neighborhood Program as she was the heart of the program and I fear the end of a wonderful city program.”
Matheson said the Neighborhood Program will continue, but the city wants to get the word out about what other departments are doing.
“We shifted the Neighborhood Councils responsibility to Uriel due to the natural overlap between cultural communities and Neighborhood Councils, converted the vacant position into a communications coordinator, and moved another employee from HR to Administration to serve as a communications coordinator,” Matheson said in an email. “The goal is to maintain our level of service to cultural communities and Neighborhood Councils as well as start to provide greater support for our departments’ communications needs including sharing positive stories about their work.”
Tracey Padilla, the wife of Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla (they married in 2018), will fill one of the new communication coordinator positions at a salary of $93,960 per year, according to city documents. She made $91,596 per year as a city Human Resources analyst and will transfer to Administration. Tracey Padilla previously worked 28 years with the Kent Police Department, when she was known as Tracey Church.
Azzola was paid $96,156 per year. The city will use that money to hire a second new communications coordinator. Varela is paid $93,960 per year as a communications coordinator.
“This new model doesn’t add any FTEs (full-time employees) or increase expenditures but will allow for more coverage, more efficiency and streamlined processes which should benefit the city,” Matheson said.
All three communication coordinators will work under communications manager Bailey Stober, who was recently named to the position full-time after serving on an interim basis since late last year. Stober makes $106,044 per year.
In another move, starting July 1, the city’s Multimedia Division will move from Information Technology to join the communications team in the Administration Department.
“The two groups work hand-in-hand every day and this change will streamline our processes and increase efficiency,” Matheson said.