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Wendy Gabriel: A woman of many talents

by George Kingson
| November 17, 2013 8:00 PM

Wendy Gabriel has worked in Coeur d'Alene's City Hall for almost a quarter of a century, first as a prosecuting attorney and currently as longtime city administrator. The self-described Idaho farm girl is a woman of many talents ranging from assisting at the birth of a calf, to running a city department with 350 employees, to raising her family.

What was it like growing up in Declo, Idaho, population 230?

It was wonderful just standing outside our house and seeing as far as you could see. The thing I remember most was it was so peaceful. On a summer night I'd have my window open and I could hear the crickets.

Declo was a farming community and what we had was a cafe - the Cowboy Corner Cafe - a post office and a convenience store. My dad was a farmer-rancher and he really wanted us to help him with his work because he said we needed to learn a work ethic while we were young. So we helped build electric fences, chop thistle and brand cattle.

And every year after branding, Dad would buy me a new cattle hat. That was my reward.

I was definitely a farm girl and I think I had the best childhood I could have ever had.

Everyone's got dreams growing up. What were yours?

I was absolutely sure I wanted to become a doctor. So I spent my first year of college at the University of Washington because they have a great med school there and that's where I thought I'd end up. That dream lasted about a year before I transferred to the University of Idaho and started majoring in political science.

At that point, I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I liked the subject and knew I wanted a four-year degree.

You eventually settled on law school. What moved you from there into city administration?

I started as a legal intern in the (Coeur d'Alene) city attorney's office in 1989 and found that I liked prosecuting, so I worked as a prosecutor for five years. Even though we just handled misdemeanors, it was definitely challenging. Domestic batteries were the worst.

After a while I was ready for a change. We had a new city administrator and he wanted an administrative assistant. In 1993, I moved into that role.

It was a Monday-through-Friday position and I had two young kids at the time. Back then I had no desire to be in a big law firm working 80 hours a week and trying to make partner.

That role eventually moved me into being a deputy city administrator, which was more appealing to me because my duties were more challenging which, in turn, made the job more fun.

I became city administrator in June of 2002.

Can you give me the short version of the city administrator's duties?

It's very similar to a city manager's job. I put together the right teams, resources and tools to implement the policies and goals of the city council. My job is to do what the majority of the council says to do.

My department has about 350 employees, including our seasonal and part-timers.

Do you think the city could survive without a city administrator?

If they want to be successful, they need someone that can take the ship they're steering in a certain direction and make sure it gets there. They say go north and we figure out how to do it.

Does your department actually have much input in the ultimate decision-making processes of the city?

The council can put forth an idea and say to us, OK, carry this out, but they have also been open to staff and myself bringing them ideas that we think are beneficial in a way that will enhance our delivery of services, enhance the customer's experience with us and generally make things better. This happens, primarily when we change processes.

Can you give me an example?

There was a big effort to get builders and contractors a way to submit their plans on line and pay fees on line. This idea was a huge success and was brought forward by staff. I have some discretion in making some decisions without final approval from the City Council, but I have to be pretty comfortable that it's not a very far-out idea. I don't want the council to come back the following week and say to me, "What were you thinking?"

At the end of the day, we make recommendations, not law.

How steep is the learning curve in your position?

It's still going. Because we are a city that provides all our own essential services - not every city does that - we provide those essential services in 15 different departments, so there is always something new to learn.

I think the key to my success is that I don't have to know everything these department heads know, I just need to know what teams to put together to make the idea or the goal happen. I need to know who to go to for that answer.

The initial learning curve, though, is probably two years.

How do you and Deputy City Administrator, Jon Ingalls, split up responsibilities?

We have a perfect thing going here in our division of work. He is the internal guy who handles the day-to-day routine issues and problems that come up. That includes getting the department heads together, discussing the list of developments coming forward and anticipating what issues may come out of them along with ways to solve those issues.

I'm kind of the external person. I take care of the council and I'm their liaison to all the other departments. They can use me in that role or they can call the department directly.

I'm also in daily contact with the mayor, since she is the chief administrative official of the city.

Mayor-elect Steve Widmyer will be the fifth mayor you will have worked with in your career. What's the secret to a successful relationship?

You have to learn kind of what the mayors' hot buttons are - their expectations and their personalities. You also have to figure out how to meld with that. The best way to do that is to be a really good listener and not have an ego. You can't think, "I know more than them."

How do you stay out of politics in your relationships with the City Council?

It's getting harder and harder to do that. It used to be that politics were not a consideration, ever. But in the last few years, the local elections have been negative and the attempts to make the election partisan and the lack of respect for the facts have made it hard.

The folks out there that are getting involved are blogging and writing columns and they're not all being completely truthful. They think their target is the current council - whoever they are.

This affects my staff because they're the ones every day making sure, for example, that the park (McEuen) is the best park it can possibly be. But it's a hot topic when it should really be a fun project to work on with an outcome that's going to be extraordinary. My point is that the cloud over it makes it more difficult to work on.

Do you see yourself as chief morale officer of your department?

I like that idea. We do encourage our department heads to kind of do their own thing - their own fun things for their departments - and we send out lots of kudo letters that the mayor signs acknowledging that someone did a great job on this or on that.

We also have celebrations and we do some fun things together throughout the year like chilicookoffs or a cruise on the lake. We try to do things where we can all get together outside of work.

Some days on the job must be just plain hard, yes?

You have to focus on the mission and sometimes ignore the fact that not everyone on the board supports the mission. I have to go back to the fact that the majority of the council's decision is what our mission is about - no matter what that decision is.

I don't recall a decision ever made by the majority that I thought I completely disagreed with. The councils I've worked with in the past 24 years have been very visionary and very forward-thinking. It makes the projects easier to implement because you're behind them personally.

The hard part, even when it's a good decision, is knowing there are members of the council that don't like it. In my role, you want to please everybody but you can't.

So how do you relax?

Well, I went elk hunting for the first time recently and got an elk. It was the only elk I saw in seven days and it was about 270 yards away. I was shooting a new rifle and I got her on the first shot.

You know, just being outside somewhere, that's the kind of thing I like. Watching the sun rise and set and having nothing to do but enjoy it.

What's the best advice you ever received regarding your job?

The best advice came from Mayor Bloem. She said, "As a woman, you don't have to lose your soft side to be a good leader."

I'm going to miss her.