PORT TOWNSEND — After 20 years of service as the only city manager Port Townsend has known, David Timmons looked down at the Swiss watch presented to him by the city and rubbed the crystal face.
“I’m conflicted,” Timmons said. “This is my first time where there isn’t something after this, where I’m not going into another city manager role.
“That’s uncharted territory that is exciting but it creates a bit of anxiety at the same time.”
The 66-year-old professional said he has experienced several paradoxes during his tenure.
“I enjoyed working with the public but hated it at times,” he said. “I love trying to figure out complex problems but they can also be very frustrating because a solution isn’t possible. There is never enough time to do everything that needs to be done. You are always trying to find the balance.”
He said the city manager role is to translate and deliver the vision of the community.
“It’s not my personal vision. It’s my job to capture the vision the community sees and wants and then deliver that and present it. When you sit and listen and hear what’s really being said, you realize that there’s a part of something that’s missing. It needs to be addressed.”
When Timmons started his career, there were no computers, laptops, social media or the internet. He said he’d complain that the phone was ringing all day long. Now it doesn’t ring, having been replaced by emails.
“We’ve changed the way we communicate and carry on a dialogue,” he said. “It’s changed the dynamic of government.”
Throughout his 42-year career, Timmons’ has had an unusual history of being first.
After graduating from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, he worked with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and as zoning administrator for Delta County.
In 1978, Timmons was chosen as the first city department administrator for the upper peninsula in Escanaba, Mich. An opportunity arose to move to a new position as the first township manager of Breitung, Mich.
Then Marquette, Mich., offered Timmons a position as its first city manager. Although he liked the job, the 400 inches of accumulated snow the first year was too much for him to handle.
In 1985 he moved east to Colchester, Vt., hoping for less severe weather. He began his 12-year tenure as town manager and spent time with Bernie Sanders, now U.S. senator and presidential candidate, who then was mayor of Burlington, the town next door.
After 12 years in Vermont, Timmons didn’t renew his contract and, in 1997, decided to take some time off and began work as a consultant with some neighboring towns. He was hired by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help the state with four disaster events. He also was nominated to be secretary of labor under the Vermont governor, Howard Dean.
Timmons began looking around the West for new challenges. Headhunters said he should “apply for a job that no one else wants to take.”
Port Townsend opened up and he applied.
“I was offered the position and agreed to take it,” in 1999, Timmons said. “But I never thought I’d last 20 years.”
He said it was a challenge being a first manager again.
“The direction the council wanted to go at that time was not a direction I wanted to take them,” he said. “They had an agenda and I was not about to carry it out.”
In 2005, he interviewed for a position in Longview after a tense time at city hall. He eventually decided not to pursue the opportunity and stay the course.
“There are so many points of view, you have to stay neutral and respect boundaries,” he said of his experience with several different administrations. “That’s how I survived over 20 years. We got a lot accomplished.”
Timmons became involved with the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) as a volunteer municipal advisor in Croatia through a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). That gave Timmons the outlet he needed to continue in his position with a fresh outlook, he said.
The experience led him to do more work in international management in several countries. He was the recipient of ICMA’s Council of Local Authorities in International Relations (CLAIR) Fellowship during which he studied local government in Japan.
In 20 years, Port Townsend’s culture has changed. Timmons said it’s gotten older; the demographic has shifted into a retirement community.
“There’s a real dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots,” he said. “It’s been a struggle to address that. It isn’t something we can control.
“When we lost the ferries, we began to focus in on building the community to be more self-sufficient. We had to build an economic base and the three economic anchors—Upper Sims Way corridor, the maritime downtown historic corridor and Fort Worden— and invest in the infrastructure to support them.”
He said the community will struggle because it is facing serious challenges that will require a lot of creativity.
“It’s hardcore infrastructure, he said. “The 30-mile-long waterline that’s $150 million to replace — some sections are 100 years old. The wastewater treatment plant was built in the ‘90s. There are a lot of failing road infrastructure that needs to rehabilitation.
“The historic elements of the community require ongoing investment. The pool needs subsidies as it was built in the ‘60s. The golf course will require a subsidy to be maintained.”
“It’s not all gloom and doom,” he said. “It will be a real challenge. The community will have to be very careful not to chase after the shiny object.”
For the near future, Timmons is on a six-month consulting contract with Port Townsend to provide assistance to the new city manager and “let people know where the files are.” He plans to consult part time with other organizations as well.
He and his wife, Maria, have two adult children.
He said he is not leaving with any big regrets.
“The job of city manager is a lonely profession,” Timmons said.
“You have to have big energy and passion for the job. When you realize you’ve lost it, let somebody else to do it.”
Jefferson County Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected].