“I love helping a community be what it wants to be,” says Charlie Bush, former city manager of the City of Sequim, with the ease of a person who knows well what is important to him.
Charlie — and I will call him Charlie because it so befits his affability, something I recognized the first time we met over five years ago — and I meet following a request to interview him before he left his position. I wanted to meet in person.
To accommodate the dominating spirit of COVID that kept city hall closed to the public, we sat at a metal table in cold comfort on a rare snowy day in Sequim. I easily honored his agreement with the city council and avoided questions around the circumstance of his resignation; what was public was already in print and Charlie had other things about which he wanted to talk.
National coverage of recent Sequim revelations had little to do with Charlie but spilled over, and he simply refused requests from national media — although, he might have talked with them had they called about learning what makes a healthy city.
Charlie would have made it clear it wasn’t the city manager that made healthy cities. Recent attention worries him that people misunderstand the role of the city manager and give him and it far too much credit.
The community elects the city council who then provides leadership and policy direction on behalf of the city residents. One of their primary duties is the hiring and oversight of the city manager. Indeed, the manager is a key cog in the workings of a city governed by a city council/city manager form of government. He/she has a part to play, but Charlie maintains it’s just one of many parts.
When Charlie speaks of the city, I hear him describing a living organism dependent on interrelationships to function and at their best if to thrive. The city manager is the administrator who provides for and oversees the loop of implementation, monitoring and evaluation. He/she is the link between the council and city departments and staff.
The city manager keeps the council informed of legal, regulatory and policy requirements. He/she is linked with other community agencies with whom the city collaborates.
The structure not unlike other representative government is the mechanism, not the spirit or the heart or what Charlie describes as a dynamic process of everyone listening, learning, acting and responding to change that makes a healthy city. He sums it by saying, “it’s teamwork – community, council, manager, staff. No one part can claim all the credit, especially not the city manager.”
Charlie points to several of the projects taken on by the city during the past few years as examples. There is the 2019 People’s Project in which city residents were enabled to vote and have a voice on budget priorities, and Service Fest, which brought together businesses and services to revitalize neighborhoods — including “Rally in the Alley” which resulted in the removal of 50 tons of trash from Sequim in two years.
My personal favorite is the Youth Services Task Force that focuses on youth and works to bring in the voices of the young in planning around their issues.
Other projects involve traffic flow and small business relief.
Then there are the departments we take for granted like police, utilities, street maintenance.
Most recently, the city — like all of us — had to respond to COVID and all it implied for city services. City staff quickly mobilized to establish online and work from home and continue necessary community services under strict safety guidelines. The city council recognized the shortfall for many and declined to implement a planned utility rate increase.
The year brought with it an increase in tensions and community division over the medication-assisted treatment (MAT) clinic and Black Lives Matter. Both are issues not easily resolved and will be unresolvable without listening and communication. The city council took steps to open dialogue and ease tensions.
The council approved an anti-racism and anti-discrimination resolution in June and made a commitment to a process that provides an opportunity to hear and respond to the needs and concerns of impacted people. Just recently, the council proposed and approved a resolution naming 2021 a “Year of Kindness.”
Charlie says all these are the result of ideas gathered from someone listening and hearing the needs and aspirations of the community. It’s teamwork, he emphasizes again. It’s responding to growth, changing population, changing times and changing needs.
It’s helping the city become what it wants to be.
Change is the constant
Charlie is philosophic about change, something city managers must understand and deal with or consider another job. During his tenure as manager, he has worked under 18 different council members. Each brings his/her own vision of the role and priorities.
Changes in leadership can result in changing requirements for the city manager. Such is their fate and managers move in and out. Or maybe they just want to hike the Appalachian Trial.
COVID took its toll on Charlie’s planned hike of the Appalachian Trail. He and his wife are still eating through the six-month supply of food he purchased and was packing for the trip one year ago. The adventure was inspired by a desire to challenge himself physically and mentally and reflect on his father’s and a younger friend’s recent deaths.
He’s unsure of next steps – the trail is open with limitations – but he will put the time he has now for challenge and reflection to good use.
Charlie was attracted to Sequim for its friendliness, services, regional appeal, outdoor opportunities and proximity to larger cities. It is an attraction many of us share and want to maintain, although there are likely as many different versions of what that is as we are.
We hear through Charlie’s words the importance of leadership and teamwork. I know there are calls for interested candidates for the role of city council member. The City of Sequim has started a program called Sequim 101, “a citizens’ academy where residents can learn more about government structure and city operations from elected officials and city staff.”
Interested? Learn about it on the city’s website (sequimwa.gov) or other opportunities such as planning and arts commissions, some of which have membership slots for those of us who live outside the city.
For now, it’s goodbye and thanks to Charlie who did his part to help our developing city be what it wants to be. His legacy tells us how resilient and effective we can be if we work together.
*For those of you old enough to remember that this column’s title refers to a movie but perhaps too old to recall the plot: Shot by an angry husband, a playboy writer comes back as a blonde (Debbie Reynolds), as his buddy (Tony Curtis) finds out.
Bertha Cooper, a featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.