Leon Kos will retire from city after 33 years

April 27, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

City administrator leaves behind a bigger, stronger Issaquah

Leon Kos

The past three decades can be attributed to — or blamed on — legendary City Clerk Linda Ruehle.

Issaquah needed a new city administrator in early 1977. Leon Kos, a recent Seattle transplant from California, applied for the job.

The city fathers had little interest in Kos — barely 30, a fresh-faced attorney and former banker with no city hall experience. Nobody thought the young applicant intended to stay for long. Officials culled the stack of applications to eight finalists, but left Kos off the list.

But another applicant canceled at the last minute and, unbeknownst to anyone else, Ruehle slipped Kos’ name into the open slot on the list of interviewees.

Kos will step down as the No. 2 official in municipal government April 30 after 33 years. The longest-serving city administrator in the state shaped how Issaquah matured, and steered the city through a population boom.

Empty cardboard boxes piled in Kos’ office wait, ready for framed degrees, plaques, photographs and the flock of duck knickknacks on his cluttered desk. The longtime city administrator plans to retire to Arlington, and spend more time with the children and grandchildren he sees less than his City Hall coworkers.

“Hell, I spend more time with them than I do with my wife,” he cracked last week.

The same coworkers — acerbic comments aside — said Kos and the dedication, the intelligence and, yes, the humor he brought to the role will be missed.

“I guess I just got lucky by getting a fine man,” Herb Herrington, the mayor when the city hired Kos, recalled.

Soon after Ruehle helped Kos land the job, The Issaquah Press noted the hire in a front-page piece, but devoted more of the 219-word article to Kos’ vegetarianism than to his plans for city government.

Small town to boomtown

Issaquah has ballooned by more than 22,000 residents since Kos started in 1977. The city claims about 27,000 residents nowadays.

“I said, ‘Leon, look what you did to this community,’” Mayor Ava Frisinger quipped. “‘We were a lovely, bucolic community and you came up from California and ruined it.’”

The former University of California, Los Angeles graduate student body president hoped to lead a bank someday. Kos earned a business degree at the University of Southern California — after a short stint at UCLA studying engineering — and, later, a law degree at UCLA. Instead, he shepherded Issaquah from small town to boomtown.

The boom occurred alongside unprecedented preservation. Coworkers past and present, friends and the occasional critic said Kos deserves credit for efforts both public and behind the scenes to conserve forestland, streams and historic sites.

“Issaquah would not be where it is or what it is without Leon,” local environmentalist Ken Konigsmark said.

Kos helped engineer the acquisition of hundreds of parcels of undeveloped land as city administrator.

Konigsmark said Kos’ legacy as city administrator will be shaped by the tradeoff between conservation and development in the Issaquah Highlands and Talus urban villages, as well as the inaugural development-rights swap in King County and plans for another.

Konigsmark described Kos as someone able to forge relationships with builders and conservationists — a shrewd city administrator, and a practitioner of realpolitik and shuttle diplomacy, à la Henry Kissinger. The tactics enabled Kos to pull concessions from both sides and reach compromises.

“None of these things would have happened without Leon in that Henry Kissinger role,” Konigsmark said.

‘Teflon man’

Longtime Issaquah developer Skip Rowley offered another nickname: “Leon has been called the Teflon man,” he said.

Rowley admits to a “love-hate relationship” with the city administrator, but said, “Leon has been a class act for the city.”

The developer and Kos joined together to build the Issaquah Community Center in the mid-1990s, and undertake a decadelong effort to restore flood-prone Tibbetts Creek.

Kos will depart as city officials and Rowley Properties assemble a sweeping plan to redevelop almost 90 acres near state Route 900. Rowley praised Kos because, he said, the city administrator understands the importance of public-private partnerships to accomplish big goals.

“Leon has a way about him that instills confidence in all kinds of people,” the Rowley Properties chairman said.

The style instills confidence even in critics, such as Issaquah businesswoman, former City Council candidate and citizen activist Connie Marsh.

“He’s the master of the big, broad deal and it will be a loss for the city of Issaquah not to have that,” she said.

The relationship has also produced the occasional dustup.

“I think Leon is a hoot, which a good thing,” Marsh said. “Otherwise, I’d have a hard time with him.”

Suzanne Suther, a former Issaquah Chamber of Commerce executive director, praised Kos for efforts to preserve Pickering Barn, the downtown train depot and the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery. The city administrator turned out to be a steadfast ally to chamber interests.

“It isn’t a matter of fighting City Hall, it’s a matter of working with City Hall,” she said.

Suther described Kos as a leader both receptive to development and eco-friendly policies “long before ‘green’ became a buzzword.”

Sweet partnerships

Kos commuted to Issaquah from Bainbridge Island when Suther worked at the chamber. She often called Kos during the trip, and used the 35-minute blocks while he crossed Puget Sound aboard a ferry to discuss priorities.

“He never makes you feel like what you want to do is unimportant,” she said.

Suther lauded Kos as tireless proponent of Issaquah and tourism. The spot for a Boehm’s Candies placard on a state sign along the interstate happened after Kos pulled strings.

DownTown Issaquah Association Executive Director Greg Spranger met Kos more than 20 years ago. Spranger and other Issaquah Historical Society members hoped to renovate the Issaquah Train Depot, then a tumbledown structure in a muddy parking lot.

Spranger stopped at City Hall to meet Kos and discuss the idea, but he learned the city administrator had other engagements. Then, Kos came to the reception counter and Spranger explained the proposal. The plan intrigued the city administrator.

“‘I have time for you now,’” Spranger recalled from the meeting. “Since that time, he and I have been friends.”

The historical society dedicated the restored train depot in 1994.

Kos also left a legacy more unavoidable than the urban villages nestled in the Issaquah Alps, or the undeveloped tracts set aside for conservation.

The city added 1 million square feet of retail space in the mid-1990s as the Issaquah Commons and Pickering Place opened. Costco relocated corporate offices from Kirkland to Issaquah during the same period.

Detractors said the expansion increased traffic congestion and altered the small-town character of Issaquah. Supporters claimed the retail offerings increased appeal — and sales tax dollars — for the city.

Issaquah grows up

Cheryl Fambles served as Kos’ deputy during the boom years of the mid ’90s.

“We went from a little podunk nothing of a community relative to that and then went on to become the place on the Eastside,” she said.

Kos worked to soothe City Council members, offer unvarnished advice to mayors and juggle the demands of pro- and anti-development groups.

“He is a perfect city administrator in the classic sense of how a city administrator should operate,” she added.

Fambles said the role Kos played in the citywide transformation cannot be overstated. The changes succeeded because Kos maintained a long-term outlook and trusted city staffers.

“You could be honest with him, and I trusted that he was never going to stab me in the back, and that’s not always the case,” Fambles said.

Keith Niven heads city planning for the highlands and Talus as program manager of the Major Development Review Team.

Kos, he said, pushed for growth but also remained mindful of the desire to preserve forestland.

Compared to other cities in the region, Issaquah government, community groups and residents worked to safeguard the character of the city. Kos said Issaquah remains distinct as a result; nearby cities matured into faceless sprawl.

“Issaquah is this weird conundrum of people wanting to be near open space and trails, and people wanting Issaquah to be a big, sophisticated city,” Niven said.

The limelight-averse Kos deflects most of the credit for milestones from himself to myriad staffers, citizens groups and nonprofit organizations.

“The community saved and preserved the things they treasured while the community grew,” he said.

Fowl play

Beyond City Hall, Kos serves as a board member for Mountains to Sound Greenway, a greenbelt strung along Interstate 90 from Seattle and across the Cascades to tiny Thorp. He helped organize Greenway Days, the annual celebration to draw attention to the corridor.

“He’s a pied piper, and he’s just enticing to work with,” greenway Executive Director Cynthia Welti said.

Kos can also be a mischievous colleague: He opposes the approval of meeting minutes at greenway board gatherings, just for fun.

“Part of the magic of the greenway is keeping it from being scripted,” and Kos brings levity to the meetings, Welti added.

The city administrator also cracks up — or quacks up, in Kos parlance — City Hall coworkers.

The annual employee-recognition montages feature city employees interspersed with clips from “24” or “American Idol” — and Kos, dressed in a Donald Duck costume, as his alter ego: Duckman.

“Better to quack up than to crack up,” he said.

The mantra helps to explain and dozens of rubber ducks nesting on the desk and on shelves inside Kos’ office.

Kiwanis Club of Issaquah functions receive similar treatment from longtime member Kos. The city administrator and club member has climbed the Kiwanis hierarchy, and helped organize fundraisers and social gatherings for club members.

“He’s a fun person and fun to be around,” Jackie Roberts, a former King County District Court administrator and fellow Kiwanian, said last week.

Barry Feder, another Kiwanian, befriended Kos decades ago. The longtime Issaquah dentist met Kos when the city administrator and the police chief pulled up in a patrol cruiser, lights flashing and siren blaring, to haul Feder to a Kiwanis meeting. Feder said Kos’ colleagues could be unable to replace the departing city administrator.

“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for the guy,” Feder said. “I’d better take that back, knowing Leon.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

Search launches soon for new administrator

Deputy City Administrator Joe Meneghini will serve as acting city administrator after Leon Kos departs April 30.

Then, Mayor Ava Frisinger and the city administration will turn to the task of selecting a permanent city administrator.

The city plans to work with Prothman Co., the Bellevue consultant the city hired in 2007 to find a police chief. Frisinger envisions a regional search for the next city administrator. The city and consultant will cull the list of applicants to a handful of finalists to be interviewed by city officials.

Frisinger said municipal staffers will prepare a list of stakeholders — including Issaquah residents — for Prothman staffers to meet with and discuss the search.

Costs associated with the search will be paid from money set aside in the 2010 municipal budget for Kos’ salary. The mayor expects the city will hire a successor to Kos by October.

“We’ll move ahead, we’ll miss Leon for sure, but we’ll continue to provide the expected services,” Frisinger said.

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One Response to “Leon Kos will retire from city after 33 years”

  1. Issaquah tragedies, triumphs define a tumultuous year : The Issaquah Press – News, Sports, Classifieds in Issaquah, WA on December 28th, 2010 6:08 pm

    […] Kos, for good or ill, shaped Issaquah and steered the city through a population boom during 33 years as city administrator, the No. 2 spot at City […]

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