Wes Crago, Spokane's new city administrator, aims for stability and consensus before any dramatic reinvention

click to enlarge Wes Crago - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
Wes Crago

In these early days, one of the most influential figures shaping the direction of Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward's new administration isn't, as some expected, a power player from the Downtown Spokane Partnership or the Washington Association of Realtors.

It's the guy who's best known for trying to defeat controversial Washington state Rep. Matt Shea a half-dozen years ago — and losing.

But during that 2014 race, Josh Arritola — a Republican from Spokane Valley — worked with one of the same political consultants who gave Woodward advice in her mayoral race last year. After her narrow victory in November, that consultant connected Woodward with Arritola.

"She came to office with no allies, no staff, no advisors. The bureaucracy was like, 'Welcome to town. This is what you're going to do,'" Arritola recalls. "Everybody was coming from every direction saying, 'You need to make this decision or that decision... 'She says, 'I don't know what to do.'"

Arritola says he wanted to help reduce Woodward's stress, showing her that she could slow down before making big decisions.

He introduced her to two people who he thought could offer guidance: One was Tom Bartridge, an executive vice president of Arritola's business consulting company. Bartridge became Woodward's transition manager and ultimately, her pick for the city's interim human resources director.

The other was Arritola's uncle, Wes Crago, the longtime city administrator of the Central Washington town of Ephrata. And once Crago met Woodward, he came to believe that she was truly committed to collaboration.

"I probably wouldn't have been as interested in the job if this was a highly partisan mayor," Crago says. "We believe in things that work for the citizens. If that has a label attached to it, that's irrelevant."

EXPERIENCE POINTS

In one sense, this new job is a huge leap up. Crago cites the difference in scale as one of the biggest challenges: Spokane is 27 times larger than Ephrata, which boasts a population of a little more than 8,000.

"It's a much more complex issue," Crago says. "But there's a lot of people to help explain the complexities and provide the context and the details, and that's pretty exciting."

But in another sense, Crago comes in more experienced in government than almost anyone else at the upper echelons of the city.

Woodward, who readily acknowledged her lack of political experience during last year's political campaign, says she was impressed by Crago's 16 years as a city administrator.

"I especially like the fact that he was on City Council before that — that dual perspective," Woodward says.

A high school history teacher and football coach, Crago was appointed to Ephrata City Council back in 1993 — becoming the youngest on record ever to hold office in the town. Then, in 2003, Ephrata's mayor at the time, Chris Jacobson, appointed Crago as his city administrator.

"There were several business people who said 'What the hell are you doing hiring a school teacher for city administrator?'" Jacobson says.

But Jacobson thought Crago being a teacher — savvy in dealing with flack from kids and parents, accomplished in explaining complicated concepts to anyone — gave him the perfect skills to run city government.

"Wes Crago probably is, in my experience, the most honorable guy I met," Jacobson says.

That doesn't mean running a small-town city government was easy. An 11-year-old drowned in the city pool. Two kids brutally murdered another kid. Law enforcement officers shot a mentally handicapped man who turned out to have only been armed with a modified paintball gun. All this came in the span of their first few months.

"I felt like I got 10 years of experience in that first year," Crago says. He faced additional challenges in the years ahead.

The Recession triggered massive spending cuts in tax-poor Ephrata. One year, the mayor and the City Council agreed not to take a salary at all, while two city unions agreed to forego scheduled raises.

But together, Jacobson says, he and Crago worked to repave the city's pothole-pocked streets, regain the trust of the unions, improve the performance of the Police Department and bring order to chaotic City Council meetings.

"Ephrata became known as kind of a light," inspiring cities throughout Central Washington, Jacobson says.

In a way, working for a little town simply meant that maintaining trust was all the more important.

"Coming from a smaller town where your proximity with everybody is so much tighter, accountability and transparency are baked into my DNA," Crago says. "That's just how you do business. People have to trust the government. If you can't trust the facts, then the system starts to fall apart."

A CALMING VOICE

Former Mayor David Condon's city administrator, Theresa Sanders, had a reputation for being the sort of hard-charging leader who would move fast to make changes. But Woodward is shaping up to be a different sort of mayor, and Crago a different type of administrator. For now, Woodward has decided to seek stability and continuity, instead of immediately shaking up the status quo.

"I've always appreciated CEOs or managers when they came in new to an operation, that they observed and learned the culture of a place before they started instituting changes," Woodward told the Inlander last week. "And I think that's what I'm going to be doing, too."

The former TV anchor turned mayor even decided to bring back Condon's former city spokesman, Brian Coddington, instead of bringing in any of the many current and former media personalities she's close with.

Don't expect major administration staffing overhauls, Crago says.

"I think the citizens and the staff expect us to be stable. I think this is an extremely well-functioning staff," Crago says. "And if there's going to be changes made, they'll be something everybody collaborates on, they'd be telegraphed well ahead of time. They wouldn't surprise anybody. I don't like government surprising anyone."

In Ephrata, Crago has been praised more for his ability to bring people together, rather than immediately pushing through sudden transformation.

"He looks for even ground and fair ground and how we can reach a solution that is reasonable and fair to everybody," Jacobson says.

Jacobson says that Crago was an expert at cobbling together solutions.

"He's a very cautious and careful guy," Arritola says. "He's not a firebrand or a bulldozer."

But that doesn't mean he's soft. Efficiency is a big deal for him, Crago says, and that can lead to making difficult decisions, like firing a person or eliminating a department.

"I can be blunt," Crago says. "There's an issue and I tend to like to put it on the table, and be open and discuss it. That's how I was raised."

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear says she's already met with Crago twice, filling him in on the city's successes and her own frustrations, including with the ways that, at times, communication between the council and the previous mayor fell apart.

Together, she says, they talked about how the City Council and the Mayor's Office could work together and walk the few dozen feet between their offices to share their concerns.

"I was really, really impressed," Kinnear says. "He's easy to speak with. He's easy to talk to. He's a good listener. Those are very rare traits, for anybody."

Crago cites the council-mayor relationship as one of his major focuses — a priority that Woodward readily celebrates.

"Working with the council and then paving the way to an improved working relationship with them?" Woodward says. "I thought that was a great, great insight for him to have."

Asked about Crago while walking out of last week's council meeting, City Council President Breean Beggs reacted with a thumbs-up gesture.

Ephrata City Council members Kathleen Allstot and Matt Moore both celebrate Crago's record of bolstering trust between the two branches of government.

He also had a moderating effect on the former Ephrata mayor himself. Jacobson recalls times when he was upset about something and wanted to take some dramatic or unilateral action — like firing a cop who just did something stupid — but Crago would be urging caution, asking him to think of the consequences.

"I remember walking with him to City Hall, and presenting pretty extreme positions, 'There are things, goddamn it, I want to get done and I want to get done my way,'" Jacobson says.

Instead, they'd close the office door, and they'd battle it out, sometimes loudly. Time after time, Jacobson says, Crago convinced him to seek a more consensus position, to prioritize what was best for the city in the long term rather than what felt good in the moment.

That sort of relationship between the mayor and his or her city administrator is vital — they need to be able to feel free to speak freely and honestly with each other.

"The city administrator needs to be strong enough and ethical enough to stand up and say this is where you're wrong, and here's why you're wrong," Jacobson says. "And the mayor needs to be able to accept and appreciate that." ♦

danielw@inlander.com

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...