A Cup of Joe: Municipal maven
One of Liberty Lake's originals finding career niche in city management
By Craig Howard
When it came to balancing numbers and priorities in Spokane County's newest jurisdiction, Arlene Fisher was the right person at the right time.
Fisher arrived in Liberty Lake with a background that featured experience in the public sector, including time spent as the CFO of the U.S. Federal Court in Spokane. She earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in public administration from Eastern Washington University. Her community involvement has spanned groups such as Rotary, Spokane Valley Meals on Wheels, Leadership Spokane and Holy Names Music Center.
Fisher transitioned west to Cheney at the start of 2008, taking the reins as city administrator. On the West Plains, Fisher was integral to the city's formation of a solid waste department and sewage treatment plant while leading a successful effort to establish a utility tax fund for street and sidewalk preservation. Citizens approved the funding initiative at a margin of over 75 percent.
Fisher's leadership tenure in Cheney also included revamping the city's building, planning and code departments as well as procuring a $500,000 grant for a new 50-acre park. She was at the forefront of a campaign to rebuild the community center and led the charge to hire a new police chief and bring police and fire communications in line with the latest technology.
Last August, the Washington City/County Management Association presented Fisher with the prestigious Award for Excellence at its annual conference. The honor recognizes a city administrator for innovation and success in a jurisdiction of over 5,000 residents.
Fisher made another geographic and career transition this March when she was named city manager in Mountlake Terrace, a suburb of Seattle with a population of 24,550. She was selected from a field of more than 50 applicants and now oversees a municipality with 168 employees, 10 departments and four utilities.
Fisher and her husband, Rich Maurer, have four grown children and three grandchildren.
The Splash caught up with Fisher recently to chat about her memories of being on the ground floor of Liberty Lake, the challenges of city administration and her new life west of the mountains.
Q: What do you remember about the early years of Liberty Lake?
A: The endless council meetings. One night, in particular, we were developing the city's "Mission and Vision Statement" and it was 11:45 p.m., and I looked over at Charmaine Peterson (wife of Mayor Steve Peterson) and she was curled in a chair sleeping. I will never forget how committed everyone was to make sure we did everything right, and we wanted to be the model city. We achieved that goal.
I think my favorite or worst day was when Mayor Peterson bounced into my cubby and I was busy putting ordinances together, hiring staff, working on city policies and putting a financial system together and the mayor said, "Arlene, I want to build a library." I remember looking at him wondering if he'd hit his head somewhere along the way and couldn't see how busy I was just getting the urgent matters done. Then, he hands me a book titled, "Do it Right the First Time," and he said, "Here's our first book for the new library." I replied, "Not today, Mr. Mayor."
Today, you have your library, and I still have the book.
Q: We saw you last fall at the ribbon cutting for the Harvard Road roundabout. What are some of your impressions of Liberty Lake these days?
A: I drive through Liberty Lake when I'm visiting our Newman Lake home, and the pride is still in my heart. It's a city built with a common purpose of serving its residents. I still miss some of the great employees I used to work with. Liberty Lake is beautiful, well-run and a true gem in the Northwest. It's a top-notch, beautiful city.
Q: You went from being a director of finance and administration in Liberty Lake to the city manager in Cheney. What was that transition like?
A: Challenging and exciting all at once. Cheney is a full-service city with all utilities, including an electric utility. Cheney, as you know, is a college town and that's unique, but the experience I learned from that was invaluable. Having worked in both Liberty Lake and Cheney has prepared me for my current city challenge. Both Liberty Lake and Cheney were so opposite in many respects. Liberty Lake was only seven years old when I left. Cheney was over 125 years old when I started there. Each city had their own set of challenges and successes.
Q: Tell us about your latest career move. It's taken you across the mountains or to "the coast," as many of us east of the Cascades like to call it.
A: I joined the city of Mountlake Terrace on March 3. Rich and I moved on Thursday, Feb. 27, and I started work on Monday, March 3. Mountlake Terrace is in Snohomish County and about 12 miles north of Seattle on the I-5 corridor. The city's population is approximately 24,000. Although Mountlake Terrace is a bedroom community, it's also home to Premera Blue Cross and Swedish Medical Center, both with over 5,000 employees.
Q: What sort of city is Mountlake Terrace? How does is compare to other jurisdictions you've worked for?
A: Mountlake Terrace is a full-service city, meaning we have all utilities, police, library, a very large parks and recreation program with an aquatic center and we contract for our fire services. Edmonds School District provides the educational services. The city has 168 employees and we are a strong-mayor form of government - hence the city manager position. By comparison, it's the largest city I've managed and it's also an urban city with a very diverse population. That said, the residents want much of the same as any community - a safe place to live, a feeling of security, beautiful parks, recreation programs to serve all ages from birth to seniors, walkable destinations, diverse outdoor activities and, of course, dog and family activities and lots of dog parks. They want multi-mode transportation like transit and light rail and miles and miles of bike lanes. Even with all the differences, one element remains the same - they want a community they can be proud of and a place to call home. My passion is to
ensure that happens.
Q: For those who may not know, what are some of the primary responsibilities of a city manager?
A: It's similar to what my former Mayor Peterson does - "the buck stops with him." In my position, the "buck stops with me." In my position, I have the authority to hire and fire employees. While one might think that's easy, it's quite the contrary. It's a tremendous amount of responsibility. Overall, I'm responsible for all aspects of running a city and, most importantly, carrying out the mayor and City Council goals.
Irrespective on how big or small a city may be, one thing remains the same - everyone expects and deserves cost-effective and efficient government, whereby the finances are managed prudently and maintaining the city's financial sustainability is priority one.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being a municipal administrator?
A: I've always said, at the municipal level, you have an opportunity to affect positive change, and that's what I love about it.
Q: Finally, what sort of legacy do you think you and the inaugural leaders of Liberty Lake left on the city?
A: The legacy left was building Liberty Lake's foundation and, from that, the city has endless opportunities and potential for generations to come. Looking back, I was truly blessed to work with some of the most dedicated people I've ever known. At end of the day or end of a meeting, it was always about what's good for our community.