City worker’s job isn’t just a walk in the park

Jeff Watling compares his leadership style as the Kent city parks, recreation and community services director to that of a basketball coach.

Jeff Watling is the Kent parks

Kent’s top parks official works hard

Jeff Watling compares his leadership style as the Kent city parks, recreation and community services director to that of a basketball coach.

Watling uses what he learned from coaches as a basketball player at the University of Washington and Kentridge High School to help lead a full-time staff of 125 in six divisions of the parks department.

“My job is to provide vision and direction and to access the skills of the staff so they can succeed,” Watling said Tuesday at his City Hall office. “And then I get out of the way.”

Watling, 41, who became the city parks director in 2006, played basketball from 1987 to 1989 at the UW as a walk-on under coach Andy Russo. That means he didn’t receive an athletic scholarship to play for the Huskies after he graduated in 1985 from Kentridge. He had to earn a spot on the team by playing well in practices.

“I learned as a walk-on player that you are part of a bigger picture and it’s not all about you,” said Watling, a 6-foot-1 guard. “I was still one of the 12 players and part of the team, but I earned the respect of the other players by playing hard in practice.”

Nowadays, Watling plays golf rather than basketball. But he took on his first coaching role last winter when he oversaw his 8-year-old daughter’s church-league basketball team.

“I had a ball,” Watling said, of the fun he had. “But with 10 first- and second-grade girls, it’s like controlled chaos.”

His duties as parks director can be chaotic as well. Watling oversees parks, recreation programs, cultural programs, city facilities, human services and the city-owned Riverbend Golf Course.

“Jeff stepped into a big and busy parks department,” said Pete Petersen, director of golf operations at Riverbend, who has known Watling for about seven years. “It could’ve been somewhat overwhelming for some, but he has handled it real well.”

Watling likes the challenge to work with everything from opening a new park such as Town Square Plaza to helping to make recommendations on which nonprofit programs will receive city grants from the human services division.

“It can be hair-raising some days, but I enjoy the diversity of the job,” Watling said.

Prior to coming to Kent, Watling worked six years as the parks director for the City of Sammamish. He worked from 1993 to 2000 as a recreation manager for Metro Parks of Tacoma.

Watling developed an interest in parks and recreation as a Kentridge High student, when he worked for the City of Kent as a flag-football referee. A college internship with the Redmond Parks Department convinced him to pursue a career in parks and recreation.

“I’ve always had a passion for it and I’ve always known that public service was of great interest to me,” said Watling, who graduated from the UW in 1990 with a history degree and took numerous public-administration classes.

When the parks director job opened in Kent, Watling didn’t hesitate to apply.

“I wanted the opportunity to come back to Kent and be part of a renowned department,” he said. “I wanted to commit my passions and career to South King County and to Kent. And the commute is much better.”

Watling lives in the Lea Hill neighborhood of Auburn with his wife, Renee, who teaches in the occupational therapy department at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. They have been married for 18 years and have two daughters, ages 8 and 3.

Petersen has worked closely with Watling on the Green River levee-repair project that will cause the temporary closure of nine holes later this year at the Riverbend 18-hole course. Watling helped negotiate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and King County officials to make sure the city could keep the course open as long as possible during construction, as well as receive compensation from the county for lost revenue during the closure of nine holes.

“The greatest thing about Jeff is he was not giving an inch,” Petersen said. “The city was not going to lose in the process. He was looking out for the city and the golf course throughout the negotiations. You could see Jeff and how he was going to be a good leader of having a vision of getting us there. That’s what a good leader does.”

Contact Steve Hunter at 253-872-6600, ext. 5052 or

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