by Jack Mayne 
Craig Knutson is retiring this week and the Burien City Council honored him with a unanimously approved proclamation at Monday night’s (Oct. 13) session.
“Whereas, in his role as Burien ‘s City Attorney, Craig Knutson has exemplified uncompromised integrity, professionalism,” the proclamation read, asking “all Burien residents to join together to honor and thank Craig Knutson for his dedicated service to the City of Burien.”
Interim City Manager
The retiring city attorney spent nine months as interim city manager after former City Manager Mike Martin departed for Lynden, Wash., and until new City Manager Kamuron Gurol took office in April. During that same period, four new Council members were elected and took office.
Knutson said the perception of many citizens was that the former City Council was less willing to respond to the community.
“The new Council felt there was a perception that people weren’t given enough opportunity to participate, and when they did, they weren’t responded to,” he said in an interview recently.
“What I told the new Council members my perception was that the issues that people raised with the previous Council, would ultimately get responded to,” Knutson said. “It wasn’t that apparent that that was happening as it is now, so I think it is a good … change to what we are doing now.”
The Council now permits comments at the beginning of the meeting and later, during the new business portion, people are allowed to comment before each item is debated, effectively lengthening the meetings.
“Also, the city has become much more organized and responsive immediately or as soon as we can,” he said.
“We keep track of the comments of the public, as well as comment of Council members, and then staff are assigned to prepare responses,” Knutson said.
As the Burien city attorney, Knutson provided legal advice and representation to the City Council, city manager and city departments. The city attorney drafts city ordinances and resolutions for Council consideration, prosecutes violations of local ordinances in King County District Court, and serves as risk manager for Burien.
He has overseen litigation the city is involved in like the First Avenue South construction case “that was just started when I became city attorney so I was responsible to make sure that the city was well represented …” That case was settled.
Another example of litigation he has monitored was the Town Square Project when the original developer was not able to continue the project. The city then switched developers.
“A lot of what I do during the day is counseling and advising city staff and city officials on the law as it related to their duties so that the city doesn’t get in legal predicaments that have to resolved by litigation,” he said. “Other parts of the job are drafting and reviewing legal documents like contracts, ordinances and attending City Council meetings, advising the City Council on procedural matters or on legal matters – avoiding problems that come up like what’s known as the appearance of fairness doctrine and other that are unique to municipalities.
“There are a lot of aspects of the law that city attorneys need to be familiar with that are unique to cities, but then there are also a lot of legal issues and situations that cities can be faced with that are very similar with what a private attorney would be advising clients about like property matters, contract matters, personnel and employment, personal injury or property damage.
“It is actually quite varied on what a city attorney can deal with on a day-to-day basis, which is one of the reasons I enjoy it – why I have done it for so long and still find it interesting and rewarding,” Knutson said.
Economy on the verge
He said the Burien “economy hasn’t changed much over the past four and a half years I have been here.” But he said it is on the verge of getting much better because “of some important economic development initiatives that the city started before I got here (in 2010).”
Homelessness problems became more noticeable about the time he became interim city manager on July 25, 2013.
“I don’t think it was the economy, but people have gravitated here for other reasons,” Knutson said, and agreed that one of the reasons was that the homeless have been forced out of other areas.
When Knutson was appointed interim city manager, there was a citizen comment on The B-Town Blog: “how can he do two jobs?”
“I wasn’t really doing two jobs, we hired the same law firm that had provided city attorney services for Burien … so we had an acting city attorney who was here in this office a couple of days a week. I was doing some city attorney work because I was overseeing what she was doing and there were some things I was able to do without having to get her involved.
“But it was challenging” being interim City Manager and still doing some of the City Attorney job, he said.
City Manager job ‘hard’
“Being city manager is one of the most difficult jobs … because there are so many things that happen on a day-to-day basis, so many things you just can’t anticipate. You have your own goals and objectives that you are trying to accomplish and then these daily things pop up. Working with seven City Council members could be very rewarding but can also be very challenging.”
He said he learned a lot about Burien both from the former and the current City Councils, and the city staff.
“When the previous (Council members) were still in office, there was some … frustration about not being reelected, so that was difficult to deal with … and then when the new ones came on board, they felt like they had, and rightly so, some things they thought the voters elected them to do and a lot of those things were kind of based on a feeling that city government needed to change.”
He said new members have some idea about government, but they have a learning curve.
I think our City Council, the new ones, are very bright people, very talented people.”
As the interim city manager, he said he thought many ideas were worthy of doing, but “there is just do much you can do.”
Working as a team
“I am looking forward to retiring, but I really have enjoyed being the city attorney,” he said. “The best part of it is doing something that is important and that can help make a difference in people’s lives. I think government is a good institution, generally speaking, and it does good things for people and I like being a part of that.”
When asked what the worst part of being city attorney, Knutson cited people’s often lack of understanding.
“When people don’t understand the whole story … when you are dealing with citizens who aren’t satisfied with what is being done either to them or for them and they think it is too much or not enough. If you sit down and really talk to people and explain to them the background and the reasons, they will feel much better – they may not agree, but at least they will understand.
“Like with this trespass ordinance, I was getting calls from people around the country, from New York and some of them I didn’t know where they were from, but they weren’t from Washington, I could just tell. I hadn’t convinced them it was a great ordinance, but at least they had a better understanding, and that there was a lot more to it than just trying to kick people out of a building because they smell bad.
“Sometimes you deal with people that just will not listen,” he said. “In government, it seems we get more than our fair share.
Not his first retirement
This is not the first time Knutson will have retired, but he says the Burien job was a continuation on the career path he started on out of law school.
His first job was in 1977 in the prosecuting attorney’s office in Clallam County. He was in that office for six years until becoming city attorney for the City of Port Angeles, and retired after over 20 years. He moved to Shoreline and worked for a Snohomish County law firm for five years, often doing city attorney type of work.
“This job opened up about four and a half years ago and I decided I liked being in-house city attorney so I applied for the job,” Knutson said.
He has a son who is an ER doctor in the Army who had gotten permanently stationed at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma and who bought a house in Normandy Park “so things just sort of worked together and my wife and I found a house we really like in the southwest corner of Burien.
“One of the things I like about Burien is that I never lived in a place that was this diverse before. I grew up in north Seattle before it became more diverse. Port Angeles and the Olympic Peninsula doesn’t have much diversity, but to me Burien is more like the real world. I am glad that I bought a house here and I plan to keep living here.
“One of the other things I’d like to do after retirement is to be on the board of the White Center Food Bank, I was invited to apply for that and my application is being considered. The board is a diverse group.”Facebook Twitter Subscribe