Mercer Island city manager Julie Underwood announced her resignation on May 7 during a city council meeting, giving the council 30 days notice.
Underwood has been with the city since January 2017 and she announced her decision to tender her resignation to city leadership in an email sent around an hour before the May 7 city council meeting.
“The role of the city manager in this community is really calling for a style of management that is different from my leadership vision — I did not come to this decision lightly,” Underwood said at the meeting.
In an interview, Underwood said the political atmosphere of the city was divisive, which had taken a toll on her and her family. As Mercer Island faces budget crunches following the failure of the property levy increase Proposition 1 to pass in November, the city has had to begin shrinking services.
“This community is divisive, I think it’s going through a process where it’s trying to figure out what kind of community it wants to be and I just think my leadership vision I have for myself just doesn’t quite match well with what I think the community is going through,” Underwood said. “I feel that I’m better suited for a community that has a very clear vision, not a divided vision.”
Underwood said she was concerned for the future of the city and it’s future. She described it as being in an uncertain time. A lack of civility from the community was draining, she said.
“That frankly has taken a toll on me and my family. I’m fatigued from the mean-spirited criticism that I’m feeling, and I know my council members are feeling. I’m fatigued. I’m tired,” she said. “My spirit is broken and you know I think a good leader recognizes when they need to step aside and let someone else come in and lead.”
At the council meeting Mayor Debbie Bertlin said the city will be meeting to name an interim city manager, a process which will be discussed at either the May 21 or June 4 city council meeting. The process is one city leadership is familiar with.
City spokesperson Ross Freeman said during the search for Underwood the city had appointed two interim city managers. Archived city newsletters show that both Pam Bissonnette and Steve Lancaster served in an interim role in 2016 after former city manager Noel Treat left his position in late 2016 after being hired in June 2013. Treat served in the position for roughly the same amount of time as Underwood.
The terms of the most recent city managers are short when compared to Rich Conrad who held the position from 1996 to 2013.
“While it has been an honor and a privilege to serve as your city manager, I really look forward to being self-promoted to citizen,” Underwood said at the May 7 city council meeting.
The city of Mercer Island is facing difficult budget decisions following the failure of a levy last November which would have allowed it to continue providing the same level of services. It is not clear if the budget situation is directly tied to Underwood’s decision to leave.
Mercer Island has struggled to make ends meet and is projecting a deficit in its general fund reserves by 2023 if new funding sources are not secured or major cuts remain unmade. The city’s small business district means sales tax, generally a major source of revenue for cities, only makes up 16 percent of its budget. Consequently, the city relies on property taxes to fund its day-to-day operations.
“I think the tough part is kind of a mismatch about the expectations of the community and the city’s ability to meet those expectations,” Underwood said. “In other words, I do think there are residents that feel that they can get the same level of service for less, and I do think that’s something at some point someone’s going to have to reconcile.”