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News / Northwest

Longview looks to start search for new city manager

Jim Duscha, filling in on interim basis, hasn't said whether he'll apply for permanent position

By Brennen Kauffman, The Daily News
Published: April 19, 2024, 9:15pm

LONGVIEW — Longview City Council plans to discuss the hiring process for a new city manager on Thursday, about a month after interim City Manager Jim Duscha was hired to replace his terminated predecessor.

Three members of the current City Council didn’t vote for either change, but that hasn’t stopped Duscha — who hasn’t said whether he will apply for the permanent position — from trying to bridge the divide.

At last week’s council meeting, the retired Longview police chief said he “can bring a calming effect to the city,” particularly as questions about how the March 13 termination of then-City Manager Kris Swanson could affect selling $10 million in bonds, OK’d by the council in February to cover projects like transportation and facilities improvements.

Swanson told council earlier on the day they voted to fire her that city advisers suggested delaying selling the bonds until the city had a clear leader, as her termination was on that evening’s agenda. Swanson said at the time delaying the sale could also change interest rates, though the day prior, the city announced its bond rating under Moody’s Investors Services was Aa3, the fourth-highest ranking out of 10.

Duscha said at the April 11 meeting that the advisers are watching the city.

“One of our founding principles in our country is a peaceful, smooth transition of power, and I think that’s one of the things they’re looking for right now in the city of Longview,” he said. “Three years ago, we saw what happened at the federal government when there wasn’t that smooth transition, and they’re kind of seeing that right now, the division in Longview. They’re hoping things get straightened out.”

‘Rough seas’

Duscha is very aware of the tumultuous circumstances that led to him officially becoming Longview’s highest-ranking staff member on March 25.

“The seas have been pretty rocky, and I’m navigating the ship through the rough seas,” he told The Daily News in an interview.

Those rough seas include a lawsuit against four sitting council members for allegedly violating the Open Public Meetings Act by planning outside of council meetings to fire Swanson and select a team to negotiate Duscha’s contract.

At the March 21 meeting when his contract was approved, some council members and members of the public also questioned if Duscha would fire the city’s department leaders or other employees, especially after council members had questioned Assistant City Manger Ann Rivers’ use of time.

Since then, Rivers has announced she will not seek another term as a Washington senator because of an increase in workload in Longview, where council members drafted a resolution but never voted on auditing her time to see if she could handle both jobs.

“Although my ‘day job’ has been compatible with my legislative service to this point, I can’t promise that will be true going forward, so it’s time to step away,” she said in her April 5 announcement.

But Duscha said any characterization of him as a hatchet man is untrue. He did not come in planning to “fire every department head.” He told the same thing to department leaders when he met with them over the last two weeks, wanting to reassure the workers and their families that immediately removing employees didn’t make sense.

“Can I run every department? No way. That’s a recipe to fail,” he said. “You have to rely on each department head, and I have the utmost confidence in all of them.”

There have also been questions about how well Duscha knows the council members.

Duscha said he publicly endorsed Pro-tem Kalei LaFave in the November election because he wanted change on the council. He said LaFave and MaryAlice Wallis are the only council members he knew before talks of him stepping into his new role began, as Wallis was mayor when Duscha retired from the police department.

Duscha said his first conversations with the city council had been “civil and professional.” Mayor Spencer Boudreau, who voted to hire Duscha and fire Swanson, wrote in an email that he’s been “very impressed with his ability to immediately mesh with the staff.”

“I credit his long tenure with the city prior for that,” Boudreau wrote.

Work history

It wasn’t his personal relationships that solidified his new job, Duscha suspects, but his reputation as police chief. He was able to stay within budget during his nine years as chief and finalize labor contracts without legal disputes, he added.

Duscha sees a top priority in his new role as setting Longview’s two-year budget, which usually kicks off in May.

As the police chief, Duscha managed the department’s budgeting process for years and tried to keep tabs on how other departments handled their budget proposals. But he got involved in bean-counting even before that, as a sergeant under Chief Bob Bergreen, who asked his officers for regular input during the process.

Duscha equates the rush of exhilaration he felt as a member of Longview’s SWAT team to his work today as interim city manager.

He has lived in Longview for nearly his entire life and considers the city’s administrative offices his second home. Duscha worked for the Longview Police Department for more than 40 years. In 2011, he became the city’s police chief. He led the department until 2020, when he retired and recommended that Robert Huhta take over.

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After he retired, Duscha said, he unplugged from most of the city’s political discourse.

Then Duscha was approached about the city manager job before the special council meeting that would see Swanson fired. He said he couldn’t remember who gave him the heads up, but that other people were also considered for the job.

After talking to his wife, he agreed he would take the position if offered.

“I’d been retired, and I enjoyed being retired very much,” he said. “But I also wanted to be able to help the city in any way that I could.”