Former city manager to oversee DDES

April 2, 2010

By Tim Pfarr

John Starbard — the former Newcastle city manager fired by the City Council in January — will spearhead the effort to reform the way King County handles building and land-use permits.County Executive Dow Constantine appointed Starbard as director of the Department of Development and Environmental Services six weeks after the Newcastle council terminated his contract without cause. The executive praised Starbard for efforts to upgrade Coal Creek Parkway and remake downtown Newcastle into a pedestrian-friendly destination.

Members of the Newcastle City Council cited issues with the relationship between Starbard and other organizations and residents. Before the council fired Starbard Jan. 12, Deputy Mayor Steve Buri said the relationships had “been damaged beyond repair.”

Constantine announced the appointment March 1, the same day Starbard started at the county agency. The appointment requires approval from the King County Council, which has not yet been given.

“I have directed John to examine the current system and recommend to me ways we can reduce the cycle time for review of permit applications and increase predictability for our customers, without sacrificing our high expectations for quality, safety and environmental protection,” Constantine said in a news release.

Starbard now oversees the county agency responsible for issuing building and land-use permits for properties in unincorporated King County. Agency employees also enforce county building and land-use codes, issue business licenses and staff the King County Fire Marshal Division.

Starbard will manage a budget of nearly $22 million and a staff of about 150. In Newcastle, he managed about 25 to 30 municipal employees and a budget that was between $6 million and $7 million annually.

Although Mayor John Dulcich defended the decision to fire Starbard, he said he wishes Starbard well.

“Everyone moves on and moves forward,” Dulcich said.

Frank Abe, a spokesman for Constantine, said Newcastle’s city manager change in January was not uncommon for a city.

“Bringing in a different city manager in that situation is part of the normal course of public life,” Abe said. “It created the opportunity for the executive to bring in John to lead our reform of the county’s building and land-use permitting processes.”

Abe praised Starbard for the efforts he undertook to improve the county development agency in the early days of his tenure.

“In his first week, John has talked to staff and already developed some ideas, and we are looking forward to working with him on a fast track to reform,” Abe said.

Starbard earlier served as the city manager in Maple Valley and as a planner for Bellevue, where he managed 39 annexations to the city.

“I am honored to be able to serve Executive Constantine, and I am looking forward to working with the staff to learn how best to adapt DDES to meet its mission in the future,” Starbard said in the release. He could not be reached for further comment.

Starbard stepped in at the county development agency just as Constantine implements a plan to make the department more responsive to applicants.

“Long-term reform will take time and careful analysis, but John’s track record of fostering partnerships and delivering outstanding customer service suggests he is the right person to help us change the way the department does business,” Constantine said in the release.

King County Councilman Reagan Dunn — who represents Newcastle and unincorporated King County south of Issaquah — said Starbard brings experience as a city manager to the role, but said the county post required “some different skill sets and qualifications.”

Sean Kronberg — a founder of the Cedar Hills Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the rural Cedar Hills area south of Issaquah from dense, urban-style development — said the new director should strive for better communication, outreach and consistency in the application of county codes.

Kronberg faced off against the department during a long dispute about a former alcohol treatment facility in the Cedar Hills area.

YWCA officials proposed reopening the facility as Passage Point — residences for parents recently released from incarceration or hospitalization to be reunited with their children.

Kronberg and other Cedar Hills Rural Preservation Alliance members filed a lawsuit against the county in 2007 for violating land-use codes.

“Equal application of King County codes produces fairness and it lends credibility to the county and eases trust issues that some have had with the county over the years,” he said. “They also need to engage the public sooner.”

Officials from the county and preservation group reached a deal in January to allow a downscaled Passage Point to be built.

“From our experience with Passage Point, if Joe Citizen walked into DDES and said, ‘I want to continue a nonconforming use that was discontinued six or seven years ago,’ Joe Citizen would never be able to do that,” Kronberg said.

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