Tacoma’s First Female City Manager – Elizabeth Pauli on Challenges & What YOU Can Imagine for YOURSELF!

BY Shanalee Gallagher, Management Analyst Intern, City of Santa Barbara, CA

I recently had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth Pauli, the first female City Manager of Tacoma, Washington. The following is my interview with Ms. Pauli.

Shanalee Gallagher: First of all, congratulations on your new position! What’s it like being the first female City Manager of Tacoma?

Elizabeth Pauli: I would have to say that, when it comes to the work I’m doing I rarely think about that. But I am from time to time reminded mostly by people I interact with. I am enjoying the challenge. When I am reminded of being the first female CM, it does give me pause and I am able to reflect on the significance in terms of diversity. It reminds me that the fact that I am the first of Tacoma is important. It’s an opportunity, an obligation, and a reminder that it matters in that it changes what individuals can imagine for themselves.

SL: Other than me just reminding you of being the first, what other ways are you reminded?

EP: One of the surprises of the position is how frequently individuals come up to me, both male and female, and across all age ranges to tell me how important it is for them, and in general, that a female has been appointed to this position. That is an important lesson for me and a reminder of the symbolism of progress and visibility, but it can’t stop there. We have to go beyond symbolism and make sure good work is being done as well.

SL: It is inspiring, especially to me. I attend a women’s college so we are all pretty excited about these appointments.

EP: Again, it’s really important for me to hear that on a regular basis from different sources so I appreciate that.

SL: Can you talk about your transition from private to public sector?

EP: That transition happened about 20 years ago. When I came out of private practice to become the Chief Assistant to City Attorney. I would say that transition was pivotal for me personally. I felt immediate alignment and realized I was home so to speak and I never looked back. I did not miss the private sector and found alignment in the public sector’s values and goals. The work I could do would be assisting in achieving goals related to public good.

SL: Was it ever a goal to be a City Manager?

EP: It was never a goal to be a City Manager! I was, as you probably know, the City Attorney. I loved that job. I wasn’t contemplating a career outside of being an attorney much less a City Manager. The opportunity this presented required some quick and radical reflection on my part.

SL: I read that you initially weren’t interested in the position and joined the candidate pool pretty late in the game. What made you change your mind?

EP: Initially I was approached by the Mayor about taking the position on the interim basis. I agreed to do that with the understanding that I was not interested in putting my name in the hat for the permanent position. This was primarily because I loved the job I had but also because I read the job announcement for the position that Council had created, I thought I lacked some pretty specific qualifications in terms of background. Although I’ve been exposed to the work of a City Manager, it was always from the perspective of a legal advisor and didn’t have a lot of hands-on experience. I felt it was really important for Council to go through the process of finding the right combination of skills and experience. As I began doing the work as an interim, I was approached by Council Members and members of the public asking me to reconsider. Over the course of a few months, I began to consider the possibility of taking the job on a permanent basis. Someone had reminded me of my own advice and counsel had given to others over the years that no one comes in to any position with all of the requisites and qualifications. They come with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Part of the job is to create a team that can support you in the gaps that you have. I was starting to love the work and beginning to see possibility for the organization and for myself in that role.

SL: Women often do not apply for positions because they don’t feel qualified whereas men apply for positions even though they are very under qualified.

EP: I have read that is a phenomenon and I guess my initial decision supported that assumption to a certain extent. I was very literal at the beginning about the requirements but eventually I listened to my own advice. I knew that whoever took the position would need support.

SL: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve experienced/learned since being named City Manager?

EP: Other than how significant it is to be the first female CM, it’s the depth and breadth of the passion that exists in the community for its success and vibrancy. That has repeatedly been demonstrated in such a variety of ways across demographics and that has been a wonderful discovery. So many people are committed to success of the community

SL: What position or skill or job has prepared you the most for this position?

EP: Being in the legal department for 19 years, I had a level of understanding of how the city works, operational and policy challenges. I have observed many management styles and have positive working relationships with individuals who have managed the city. Over the years I was able to develop trust within the community about my commitment to equitably work towards improving service delivery. These are things we have to keep working on, and anyone in this position would. I think having the established relationships and direct management experience in the legal department helped as well.

SL: Who are your role models?

EP: I’ve had a lot of wonderful mentors in my life. My parents have taught our family an amazing work ethic. As I entered in to the legal profession, I had mentors that I still keep in touch with. When I came to the city, Robin Jenkinson, the female City Attorney at the time was a wonderful mentor to me. I am a person of faith so that’s a leg on my stool and a part of my guidance.

SL: Who do you ask when things get tough?

EP: I will give you my lawyer answer and that is, it depends! It depends on what the issue is and why it’s tough. There is a lot of internal support in the city and a lot of subject matter expertise and I rely on those individuals with different levels of experience. I also have a lot of offers from stakeholders and other fellow CM’s for support and guidance.

SL: I am thrilled to see the Mayor and City Manager of Tacoma are women. Do you have any advice for a graduate student starting her career in local government?

EP: I would start my advice pre-graduation. Get as many practical experiences as you can prior to graduation. There’s a lot to be said for that in terms of exposure of strengths and weaknesses and developing relationships. Upon graduation, be willing to take starter-level positions and make the most of it. Try to get a good understanding of the organization from the bottom up. I see more and more graduates wanting to start their career at the ultimate position but when I look at a resume, and I see they are willing to take positions of all levels, the resume is that much stronger.


Elizabeth Pauli is the City Manager for the City of Tacoma government, overseeing a staff of more than 2,000 and a biennial General Government budget of over $1.9 billion, which includes a General Fund budget of $461.2 million.  Tacoma has a population of approximately 208,100 residents, and is the third largest city in Washington state.

Prior to her appointment as City Manager, Ms. Pauli served as Interim City Manager. Prior to that, she served as the City Attorney for the City of Tacoma. She had joined the City of Tacoma in May 1998, as Chief Assistant City Attorney. She was appointed Acting City Attorney in 2004, and was named City Attorney in 2005.  Prior to joining the City of Tacoma, she was a partner at McGavick Graves, a well-established law firm in Tacoma. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, Ms. Pauli also has Bachelor of Science degrees in education and social work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A mother and grandmother who lives in Tacoma with her husband, Dave, Ms. Pauli enjoys tandem bicycling and running the trails near her mountain cabin.  She is an active volunteer with her church and in many local community service activities.

Shanalee Gallagher is a Master of Public Policy candidate at Mills College in Oakland, California. Shanalee has served as an intern for both the City of Santa Barbara and the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. She is currently back in the Bay Area finishing her studies at Mills College while also working as a Court Reporter part-time.