Mark Washington, Grand Rapids’ next city manager, is a busy man.
Over the telephone from Austin, where he’s now finishing as an assistant city manager, he says it’s budget season—which means a flurry of work to allocate mountains of Texans’ public dollars. His anniversary to a wife of more than two decades is just around the corner, and he jokes that he needs to hang up soon and go shopping.
Life is about to get even busier for Washington, who was appointed to Grand Rapids City Hall’s top staff job on July 31 and is now managing a cross-country move. He’s expected to start by autumn and will oversee a city of about 1,500 employees. Washington, like many incoming executives, says he’ll begin with a “listening tour”—hearing out community concerns—but from housing to policing, he knows city leaders are looking to move forward.
“This is just a great community. I know that we’ve been doing a lot of things right in Grand Rapids,” he said. “There’s a lot of plans in place, but there are some plans that need to be revisited.”
Washington’s appointment is a remarkable moment for Grand Rapids. He hails from a famously hip city—home to the University of Texas, SXSW festival and much of the state’s cultural scene—that lends his hire an exciting sense of possibility. Second Ward Commissioner Ruth Kelly points out that Washington’s experience in a large, growing city arms him with important know-how for work in Michigan; Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, praising his appointment, calls Austin “aspirational.”
Kelly says she was impressed by not only his charisma, but his exacting attention to his own life, recalling he told city leaders he rises remarkably early, exercises regularly and is carefully considering how the move affects his family.
Washington will also be Grand Rapids’ first black city manager. Washington and Bliss both insist he earned the job with his credentials—a career public servant in Texas and an MBA with a doctoral degree in educational ministry from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But they both acknowledge the history of the moment.
“I know how important it is,” Washington said. “I don’t want to mess this moment up.”
His heritage is also a notable symbol in the midst of an uneasy relationship between Grand Rapids’ black community and its police department. The city made national headlines last year when officers handcuffed an 11-year-old black girl in northwest Grand Rapids while searching for a 40-year-old stabbing suspect. Earlier in 2017, officers held five unarmed black boys at gunpoint as they investigated a gun-related report.
“(Washington’s hiring is) very significant because I think it shows that Grand Rapids is becoming a place where minority folks, or folks of color, can apply and get jobs and move up,” said George Bayard III, who directs the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives. “And I think that was one of the mayor’s goals from the very beginning—to create more diversity in our town.”
The fine details of Washington’s employment still aren’t clear. Bliss said she hopes to see him start by this fall, but knows that he has a big move ahead and couldn’t offer a concrete start date. The city’s job posting offers a pay range of $150,000 to $250,000, but an employment contract hasn’t been finalized.
Washington, who competed with four other finalists for the job, will be the long-term replacement for Greg Sundstrom, who announced his retirement one year ago. Following his departure, ex-deputy city manager Eric DeLong has filled the role on an interim basis.
And as Washington comes to Grand Rapids, he leaves behind a city going through a leadership “shakeup,” as the Austin American-Statesman described it. Recently hired Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk announced late last month that his team of five assistant city managers would be dissolved and replaced with five new positions aimed at council-identified goals. Washington, if he stayed, would have had to re-apply for a job.
“Austin isn’t something I’m running from—Grand Rapids is something I’m running to,” Washington told GR|MAG. “(My) interest in Grand Rapids preceded whatever organizational changes happened here in Austin.”
When Washington arrives, there will be plenty to do. Bliss mentions community-police relations, infrastructure improvement, housing and more. That last point is notable: Carlos Sanchez, executive director of the Grand Rapids Housing Commission, said nearly 10,000 people have applied to various commission programs, including Section 8—and many of them make less than $12,000.
“They’re working, but they’re just not making that kind of money,” Sanchez said.
Washington is well aware that the city has room to grow. He sketches out a philosophy that focuses on “equity” of all kinds—putting housing within reach, for example, for “people who have been marginalized.”
“We want to make Grand Rapids a place for all people,” Washington said.
*Main photo: Mark Washington. Photo courtesy of the City of Austin.