Julie Underwood has worked in three cities in the past five years–so she’s noooooooo stranger to city council meetings! We talked about what happens when you bring your kids to a meeting, why she chose to sit far away from the mayor, and one pet peeve of hers.
Q: When you got sworn in as Mercer Island city manager, your sons were standing there with you. Your youngest was seemingly doing a Spiderman impression while you were talking about upholding the Constitution…has your family been to any other council meetings?
A: They have not. I generally do not have them attend council meetings for obvious reasons–the Spiderman and the…oh, my gosh! Wanting to take the mic and wanting to get my attention when I need to focus on what’s happening with the council. Many of us are working parents. I’ve had to pick up my kids towards the end of the day and run back to the office where I’ve said, “sit in my office. I’ve got a meeting. Do your homework.”
Q: I noticed that for your first couple of Mercer Island meetings, you sat next to the mayor and other council members. But by the third meeting, you were not up there on the dais! Does Mayor Bruce Bassett smell bad?
A: [Laughs] No, he doesn’t smell bad. They’re the legislative branch. If I were just observing the council meeting, I wouldn’t know exactly what is this person doing up there? Those folks are all elected by the people and I’m appointed. I really wanted to understand, is there a reason city managers sat up there? Are [council members] really wedded to this idea? As it turned out, none of them were.
Q: Are there things you have seen council members do or say in the meetings that you really wish they wouldn’t? What habits grind your gears?
A: I’m certainly sensitive when I might hear a council member use the term “my constituents.” Once you get elected, you work for all residents at that point. Every city I’ve worked for, every one of the elected positions were at-large [elected citywide]. So I just thought that was odd to say “my constituents.”
Q: Yeah, everyone has the same constituents. It might just be something they assume they have to say when they become a politician. It makes you sound like Ted Kennedy or something.
A: Maybe, yeah.
Q: Have city council members ever surprised you by telling you behind closed doors that some project or idea is perfectly reasonable, but once they get in the council meeting, they slam it left and right?
A: Yeah, I’ve had council members tell me in private where they’re going and then on the dais do the opposite. That is their prerogative. There is a certain amount of uncertainty that is not fun. I’ve also seen where they see testimony in public comment and councils just go in a different direction based on that testimony. I will say this: when I do experience that, it gives me pause and I say, okay, this is a case where I do have to be okay with the uncertainty of a particular person. I just don’t know if what they’re saying is going to be what they do.
Follow City Manager Julie Underwood on Twitter: @UnderwoodJulie