City of Kent CAO Derek Matheson to leave to become Fife city manager

After eight years as the city of Kent chief administrative officer, Derek Matheson will take a new job in April farther south along Interstate 5 as the Fife city manager.

The city of Fife announced the hiring in a Monday, March 14 press release. Matheson’s last day in Kent is March 25. He starts his new job April 18.

“I wanted to get back to the council-manager form of government,” Matheson said during a March 14 phone interview.

Under that form of government, an elected city council makes decisions for the city, and an appointed city manager carries out those decisions and oversees the daily operation of the city. The city manager is responsible for implementing the adopted policies of the council by coordinating city services to meet the needs of all who live, conduct business and play in the city, according to the city of Fife website.

Kent’s mayor-council form includes a voter-elected mayor who serves as the city’s chief administrative officer, and a separately elected council which serves as the municipality’s legislative body. The council has the authority to formulate and adopt city policies and the mayor is responsible for carrying them out.

The voter-elected mayor appoints the chief administrative officer to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city. The CAO serves as the mayor’s direct report in overseeing the department directors and acts as the mayor’s liaison to the council.

Then-Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke appointed Matheson in 2014 after he worked seven years as the Covington city manager. He replaced John Hodgson, who retired in 2013 after seven years on the job. Then-City Attorney Tom Brubaker served as interim CAO until Matheson’s hire.

Matheson said he wanted to go back to a city manager role similar to Covington and even talked with his wife about moving out of state to take such a position. But then the Fife position opened and he applied for the job in November.

“Fife feels like a really good combination of what I like about Covington and Kent,” Matheson said.

Matheson worked 12 years at the city of Federal Way when it had a council-manager form of government. He worked part of the time as an assistant city manager, prior to going to Covington.

When Matheson took the Kent job, he said at the time he planned to stay for a long time. For a CAO, eight years is a long time.

“People in my line of work move every couple of years,” Matheson said. “Eight years is a pretty good run.”

At Fife, Matheson will replace Hyun Kim, who left after four years to become city administrator in Gillette, Wyoming.

Matheson will be working in a much smaller city, as Fife has a population of about 11,000 compared to nearly 138,000 in Kent.

But Matheson, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Washington, said Fife is a much more complex organization than the position might indicate.

“It’s on an existing freeway (I-5) and an extended freeway (Highway 167) and light rail will be coming in a few years,” Matheson said. “It’s a small city but it plays a big role in our region and the transportation system.”

The Fife City Council appointed Matheson as city manager at its March 8 meeting.

“Matheson has been local for his entire career and knows local issues and strategies,” said Fife Mayor Kim Roscoe. “His strengths in communications, equity and inclusion, strategic planning, financial sustainability, economic development and infrastructure funding and construction will benefit the Fife community. As we get closer to Sound Transit light rail, navigate post-pandemic issues, address aging facilities and respond to the pressures Fife faces due to its geographical location, his leadership and experience will be instrumental.”

Fife is similar to Kent with its strong economy and has acres of commercial warehouses. And while Kent will get light rail service in 2024, Fife is scheduled to be part of the expansion to the Tacoma Dome from Federal Way in 2032.

Matheson said one of his accomplishments he will remember in Kent is getting the mayor and council to work closer together on the budget process.

“We strengthened the relationship between the mayor and council and made it a more transparent budget process,” he said. “I think three-fourths of the budgets I worked on were budget shortfalls, with the fiscal cliff and COVID-19. I think the budget process served us well.”

Kent Mayor Dana Ralph expressed mixed emotions about Matheson leaving.

“I am very happy for Derek and this new opportunity but really sad to see him leave,” said Ralph, in her fifth year as mayor. “Derek has been an extremely integral part of the city for the past eight years and done an amazing job. He will be missed very much.”

Ralph praised the leadership skills of Matheson and his active role.

“Derek’s fingerprints are on nearly everything the city does both internally and externally,” Ralph said. “His consistent leadership has been key as we worked through the pandemic – managing our workforce, making strategic investments of federal dollars and managing the budget. Derek spearheaded the work to establish performance goals and measures as well as our performance dashboard to better implement and share data driven decision making here at the city.”

Matheson had a quick reply when asked what he will miss most about working for the city of Kent.

“Without a doubt, the people,” he said. “We have an outstanding mayor and city council and fabulous department heads and employees. I told them I learned more from them than they learned from me. I’ll miss them.”

Filling the vacancy

Ralph said the city will contract with a national search firm to begin the recruitment process to replace Matheson.

“It is too soon to say for sure but we are anticipating the process could take up to six months,” Ralph said.

The mayor named City Attorney Pat Fitzpatrick as the interim CAO during the search.

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Article Source: Kent Reporter