As the city of Mercer Island sets its goals for 2017, it does so under the direction of its new permanent city manager, Julie Thuy Underwood.
Underwood is the first woman and person of color to serve as Mercer Island city manager. She is also an Island resident, and lives on the south end with her husband and three children.
Underwood said she is enjoying meeting residents, and loves her neighbors and the tight-knit community on the Island, but she also understands the challenges associated with a growing community.
Communicating with residents and preparing for changes coming to the Island — namely, the reconfiguration of Interstate 90 for light rail construction — will be among Underwood’s priorities.
Underwood has about 20 years in local government experience, having worked in the city managers’ offices in Rockville, Maryland; Shoreline, Washington and Daly City, California.
“My entire local government career has been in the city manager’s office, preparing to serve as a manager myself,” she said.
She has a master’s degree in public administration from Virginia Tech and a BA from George Mason University.
Underwood started her tenure as city manager on Jan. 3, and answered a few questions from the Reporter to help the community get to know her better.
1. What about the Mercer Island job appealed to you?
I love the Pacific Northwest — I enjoy the beautiful environment and the values of environmental sustainability, civic engagement and cultural diversity. Mercer Island has always had a reputation for being an exceptional community with its great schools, outstanding public amenities and well-managed city. When I saw its city manager opening, it did not take a lot of convincing to get me to apply. I was very excited about this opportunity. My family and I are now thrilled to call Mercer Island home.
2. How would you describe your style of city management?
I am a “servant leader” driven to serve my community and pride myself on being accessible, approachable and open. I prefer to come at problems by defining the problem well and using a team-oriented approach to problem-solving — and often that means partnering with our community to figure out the best solution. I am most proud of the role that I get to play as community builder and am motivated by realizing our community’s vision of maintaining our small town feel and livability, valuing education and quality, fiscally sound municipal services and cherishing our environment.
3. What are the most important issues facing the city of Mercer Island, in your opinion?
Two pressing issues have to be addressed:
• The East Link Project’s impact to our mobility. As an Island, we are uniquely dependent on I-90 to get on/off the Island. Long-standing regional agreements committed that prior to the closure of the I-90 center roadway, steps would be taken to mitigate any impacts to mobility to Mercer Island residents. As the closure draws near, we have yet to understand what those mitigation measures would be, much less know if they would be acceptable to our community.
• The 1 percent annual growth limitation on property taxes has not kept pace with the increasing costs of operating a municipal corporation and providing the range of services and amenities that the community has come to expect from a full-service city. We must develop a financial sustainability plan that addresses the operating budget as well as the city’s infrastructure needs. Later this year, I will be seeking volunteers who would like to help us solve this problem. It’s vital that citizens weigh in and provide us with their feedback.
4. What do you most hope to achieve during your tenure?
Opening a new light rail station on the Island is exciting and truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! Having diverse travel modes, including light rail, for our residents to access jobs, educational and cultural experiences and sporting events, will be a huge achievement for us and the region.
Also, as a bedroom community, our economic development opportunities are limited to the Town Center. It would be great to facilitate private-public partnerships that realizes the vision of the Town Center Plan — a small town feel, pedestrian-friendly and tree-lined streetscapes, a variety of uses and housing options, and supporting long-standing businesses as well as attracting new ones.
5. What do you like to do in your spare time?
With three boys ages 15, 12 and 6, and a spouse with his own demanding job, we are always busy. I like to sneak in a movie or Netflix, read, mostly non-fiction (I’m a leadership-management nerd), be a foodie and occasionally blog for Engaging Local Government Leaders or League of Women in Government. I also hope to spend time getting to know the special places on the Island that much better.