City tries to keep its friends close, its managers closer

Vancouver official still hasn’t sold house to move into town

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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photoEric Holmes

The Vancouver City Council made it clear they loved almost everything about Eric Holmes when they agreed unanimously to hire him as the new city manager in November 2010.

Almost everything -- except his Felida address.

As part of Holmes’ contract, the city council gave him 2-1/2 years to sell his home -- a long time frame due to the poor real estate market -- and move within city limits, as required in Vancouver’s charter.

By this time next year, Holmes must be living within the city’s boundaries.

But while the city manager must live in Vancouver proper, his top managers do not have to follow the same law.

That’s thanks to previous city manager Pat McDonnell, who loosened the prior city manager’s strict within-city-limits residency policy to one that gives top employees the flexibility to live anywhere within the urban growth area.

As a result, just half of the Vancouver’s top leaders live within city limits. The other half call the relatively far-flung Felida and Pleasant Valley areas home.

The policy covers just six positions. Three directors -- Assistant City Manager David Mercier, Chief Financial Officer Lloyd Tyler and Police Chief Cliff Cook -- have opted to live outside Vancouver.

Three live in Vancouver: Fire Chief Joe Molina lives in Fisher’s Landing; Public Works Director Brian Carlson lives in Old Evergreen Highway; and City Attorney Ted Gathe calls Hough home.

It’s an administrative policy that Holmes inherited, but he said this week he doesn’t feel the need to alter it.

“Whether you live on one side or the other of a geopolitical boundary has little to do with how well you do your job,” Holmes said.

Vancouver’s policy isn’t much different from other public institutions in the Pacific Northwest, said Lara Cunningham, managing director of the Portland office of Waldron & Co. The firm specializes in headhunting top public positions, and was hired by the Vancouver City Council in its 2010 search for McDonnell’s replacement.

“In most cases, just the city manager is required to live within city limits -- more often than not, they’re asked by charter to live there,” Cunningham said. “The other directors, it’s not as common, as I’ve seen it.”

Occasionally fire and police chiefs may be bound to city limits, but “I don’t see all senior staff being required” to live in a city, she said.

But moving into a city can show a true investment to the municipality the manager serves, Cunningham said.

Though each of the city’s department heads are compensated in the six-figure range and have large homes, those who live outside the city don’t pay property taxes to Vancouver to contribute to their own salaries.

Yet the city’s workers, regardless of where they live, conduct much of their daily lives within Vancouver, Holmes said, adding that many shop and dine here, so they do contribute in the form of city sales tax.

And the flip side of a residency requirement is the potential to limit the number of well-qualified people who would otherwise seek a position.

“One point I think is worth of discussion is when you’re part of a large metro area … having a strict residency requirement is going to have the impact of limiting your pool of talent,” Holmes said.

In fact, the city did lose a top manager -- former Police Chief Brian Martinek -- with its current residency policy for him to live within the city’s urban growth area.

Martinek left the job in 2007 after asking for a waiver on the policy to move to Portland, where his children were to attend private school. McDonnell turned him down.

This week, Holmes called it a policy that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer.

Halfway through his 2-year deadline, Holmes has yet to move. He and his wife, Elizabeth, purchased the house in 2005 for $449,500, at the height of Clark County’s real estate boom. At the time, Holmes was serving as Battle Ground city manager.

Today, county property records show the house is valued at $372,168, so the family is biding its time to see if the market improves.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.