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Puyallup city manager resigns — after months of tension — with $219K severance package

Adrian Florez

Before Kevin Yamamoto was hired to run the City of Puyallup in 2015, he witnessed a revolving door of four city managers. Now, he's joining their ranks. 

But he’s not leaving empty handed.

Puyallup City Council members accepted a notice of resignation, effective immediately, from Yamamoto in a late-night vote Tuesday.  

The unanimous decision included approval of a separation agreement, 11 months of pay totaling nearly $160,000.

Mayor John Palmer foreshadowed the vote before the council adjourned into executive session. Council members didn’t re-emerge until after 11 p.m. 

Palmer said he would accept the resignation with sadness, praising the outgoing city manager as “highly thought of” among the staff. 

“Mr. Yamamoto has had an excellent tenure here with the City of Puyallup,” Palmer said before the vote. “He’s hired a lot of good staff that’s in place in our city.” 

Assistant City Manager Steve Kirkelie was subsequently appointed to temporarily replace his boss. 

KNKX Public Radio reached Yamamoto by phone on Wednesday. He didn’t comment on the circumstances surrounding his resignation.  

The separation agreement, obtained by KNKX Public Radio, entitles the outgoing city manager to collect a total of $159,137, administered through bi-monthly payments. He’s also cashing out 720 hours of unused vacation time, totaling just over $60,000.

The agreement also includes a so-called “non-disparagement” clause for both parties — Yamamoto and the city — prohibiting them from making negative, derogatory or disparaging comments about one another; the penalty for violations amounts to $5,000 per occurrence.

The abrupt change in leadership follows months of tension between Yamamoto and some City Council members. Last year, Councilman Jim Kastama tried to introduce a resolution to remove the city manager from his position, an effort that resulted in ongoing discussions about an evaluation process for the city’s top official. 

Kastama, who was elected to represent District 1 in 2017, also was among a contingent of council members who tried introducing a strong-mayor initiative earlier this year. The effort, which council members eventually tabled, would have changed the form of government and effectively eliminated Yamamoto’s position as the head of city operations. 

Yamamoto was hired in 2007 as an assistant city attorney. He served a couple years as city attorney, after working his way up through the department, before being promoted to run the city in 2015 — the fifth city manager in eight years. He replaced Bill McDonald, who served a two-year stint in an interim role. 

Puyallup’s high turnover at the top has often ebbed and flowed with shifting council majorities. Yamamoto’s four-and-a-half-year tenure is among the longest compared to his most recent predecessors. 

He says the work he’s most proud of during his 12 years in Puyallup is helping preserve the legacy of Neil Van Lierop’s historic bulb farm. A portion of the land has been turned into a city park, while another is being developed by the nonprofit Step By Step. 

As for what’s next, Yamamoto says he’s not ruling out a continued future in government.

“I’ll go where my best opportunity is,” he said.

Kari Plog is an award-winning reporter covering the South Sound, including Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties. Before transitioning to public radio in 2018, Kari worked as a print journalist at The News Tribune in Tacoma.
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