Conversation: Ted Carlson

Ted Carlson is the city of Bellingham's new public works director and he said preserving and maintaining the city's transportation...

By Lance Henderson

Ted Carlson first came to Bellingham for a different job, but when opportunity knocked — he answered.

Eighteen months ago, Carlson took a position as Bellingham’s assistant public works director of operations. Soon after his arrival, then Public Works Director Dick McKinley left the City of Bellingham to take the public works director position in Tacoma. 

While the city conducted a nationwide search for McKinley’s replacement, veteran public works employee Tom Rosenberg stepped up as interim public works director.

After the smoke cleared, Carlson emerged as the department’s new director.

“It wasn’t part of the original plan,” Carlson said. “From a career perspective, there was plenty of room for growth as an assistant director, but the position came available and I made the most of it. I thought it was a good opportunity and a good challenge.”

The challenge, Carlson said, will be to preserve and maintain Bellingham’s transportation and utility infrastructure amid declining revenue and speculative budget projections.

As Carlson begins his new position, The Bellingham Business Journal sat down to officially meet the new city’s new public works director.

Name: Ted Carlson
Age: 38
Hometown: Bothell, Wash.
Education: Bachelor of Business Administration and Master’s of Public Administration, both from University of Washington
Family: Wife Suzanne and two daughters, Kyla and Jill

The Bellingham Business Journal: The city performed an extensive professional search ending with five finalists from all over the country. Why do you think you were the one who came out on top?

Ted Carlson: You know I am not really sure. I have experience and am familiar working with communities, which didn’t hurt. I think I brought a different perspective coming from the operations side. I also have a financial background. With the economic downturn and some of the things we are going through dealing with reduced revenue, I think one of my strengths is looking at things from a financial perspective and analyzing budgets…and that may have been an advantage. 

BBJ: What were some of your major experiences before coming to work in Bellingham?

TC: Prior to coming to Bellingham, I was with the city of Kenmore, Wash. That was an interesting position because it was a new city. Kenmore was incorporated in 1998 and I was the first public works employee, so it was a unique opportunity to come into a city and really start the public works department from the ground up. I was there for about seven years and really did the whole range of public works duties. When you are the first employee, you get a taste of everything. It was a great experience; it gave me a broad range of public works experience. Prior to being in Kenmore, I was with the city of Lake Forest Park, Wash. I started there as a maintenance worker, so I came up through the operations and maintenance side ultimately becoming the superintendent of Lake Forest Park.

BBJ: How have the experiences you have had so far prepared you for this new job?

TC: I think one of the best experiences I had was at Kenmore. I think the fact that I was in at the beginning when the city first incorporated and the challenge of starting the public works department from the ground up in a new city provided me with a lot of experience in a wide variety of public works disciplines. So I became sort of a public works generalist as well as an administrator. From that perspective, it may have been an advantage to come from a smaller city where you get a broader scope of public works experience.

BBJ: You are going to be overseeing 240 employees. What kind of boss will you be?

TC: When I came up initially, I was really impressed with the staff. Bellingham is fortunate to have really talented people working in the public works department. As the leader of public works, my challenge is to utilize those people to the fullest, take advantage of everyone’s expertise because everyone really knows their program, and find out what direction they think the department should be going. It’s really just asking the right questions and getting people moving in the right direction. My style is to utilize the talent and expertise that we already have.

BBJ: You will also be in charge of a $102.7 million operating budget. What will be your guiding principles for managing that budget?

TC: It is a challenge right now. Bellingham is in the same situation as a lot of agencies. Obviously, the economic downturn has impacted our revenues. I think our challenge is to look at the services we provide and see if we can provide them in a more efficient manner. I think the city has been doing a good job of finding efficiencies. The second part of that is to look at the programs and services that we are providing and ask whether or not we should be doing those. If so, at what level? As we move forward, what we have to do is maintain and preserve our infrastructure. That is the city’s largest asset, whether you are talking about the transportation network or utilities. We have to find a way to continue capital maintenance programs and look at all of our programs — operating and capital — and size them accordingly so that we can be sustainable.

BBJ: As you enter this position, what are your major objectives?

TC: I think we talked about it a little bit. I think a major objective is to preserve and maintain our infrastructure. At the same time, we have to meet the city’s ever-changing needs, in terms of infrastructure, and we have to be aware of what those needs are and make sure that we align ourselves accordingly. I think the current economic situation presents a major challenge to doing that.

BBJ: What do you foresee being the greatest challenges in the future?

TC: I think the economy is the major challenge for everybody. Revenues are down. We don’t really know what the future holds in terms of future revenue, so what we need to do is take a look at what our responsibilities are, do a good job of prioritizing and understanding what the community needs and council goals are, and then align our programs so that we can meet those given the restrictions that everyone is dealing with right now.

BBJ: Any other comments?

TC: Bellingham is a great community. I came up here not just for the career opportunity, but it’s a great place to live and raise a family. I think being Public Works director gives me an opportunity to play a part in how the city government shapes the community as we move forward. I think that is important. One of the things I hope I can do is to help people within our department to understand the role that we play in shaping the community.

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