Public Works Director Phil Williams reflects on his 12-year legacy in Edmonds

Shown during the ribbon cutting in 2014, Public Works Director Phil Williams says the Five Corners Roundabout is one of the projects he was most proud of during this time with the city. (File photo by Larry Vogel)

Edmonds Public Works and Utilities Director Phil Williams is leaving Nov. 22 to take a similar position with the City of Redmond, and he’s looking forward to the fresh challenges the new job will bring.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time in Edmonds,” Williams reflected. “It’s been a good place for me, but what with the pandemic and politics becoming more polarized almost wherever you go, things are becoming difficult right now. Compromise, consensus and negotiation don’t seem to work like they once did, and it makes being a civil servant tough at times.”

But this isn’t his major reason for leaving.

“I was probably going to retire in the first half of 2022 anyway,” he added, “and then this situation with the City of Redmond just popped up – it seemed like the right opportunity at the right time.”

A familiar face at public meetings and town halls, Williams sees it as a critical part of his job to engage with citizens, answer questions, and de-mystify sometimes complex public works projects. (File photos by Larry Vogel)

He went on to explain that his position in Redmond is temporary, where he would fill the public works director job while the city conducts a search and recruitment process for a full-time replacement.

“They’ve guaranteed me six months,” he explained, adding that this could possibly be extended by mutual agreement and that “I’ll probably be retiring after that.”

Redmond isn’t the first temporary/transitional berth for the 71-year-old Williams — he also filled a similar temporary position in Marysville before coming to Edmonds. It’s a career that has taken him through a range of jobs spanning both the private and public sectors, and ranging from water quality researcher for the Department of Ecology to compliance specialist with Kaiser Aluminum to riding the rails as a brakeman.

And now, after almost 12 years in Edmonds, he finds himself itching to take on new challenges.

“It seems like about every five to seven years I’ve figured out how to do something different,” he laughed.  “It’s kind of my pattern.  It really energizes me to be in a fresh situation and to be on a steep learning curve with new projects, people, locations and attitudes.”

Born in Bend, Oregon, Williams and his family relocated to Vancouver, Washington when he was 3 years old.  His father, a locomotive engineer for the then-Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway, was transferred, and needed to be closer to his new base. But while driving a locomotive paid the bills, Williams’ father had bigger dreams.

“My dad was what you’d call a wannabe farmer,” Williams recalled with a smile.

And in 1959 that dream came true when the family purchased a 160-acre farm “in the middle of nowhere” near Battleground, Washington, and the 9-year-old Williams dove into the life of a farm boy.

“We raised cattle, sheep and trees,” he recalled, adding that when he wasn’t doing farm chores, “like milking our cow by hand, I hunted and fished in the surrounding area. It was like Disneyland for me. I loved it.”

After graduating from Battleground High School, Williams went on to Washington State University, where he studied biology and worked summers for the railroad to defray college expenses.

“I was a brakeman those summers, riding the rails sometimes 16 hours a day, seven days a week,” he related. “The pay was great, and I found the work intoxicating.  I made enough that along with my ROTC scholarship my college costs were pretty well covered.”

He graduated in 1972 with a degree in wildlife biology. But according to Williams, that degree qualifies you for only two careers — a game warden (“essentially a cop”) or an academic —  neither of which he found attractive. So after college he went back to work for the railroad for a few years while considering his options.

Ultimately deciding that more education was the next step, he began grad school at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, where he earned a master of science in aquatic biology for his thesis research work on Long Lake and the Spokane River. The latter, which was funded by Department of Ecology, focused specifically on the impacts on aquatic life of sewage discharge in the river. Williams focused on diatoms as his indicator species and spent many tedious months peering through a microscope counting these little creatures.

After earning his master’s degree, he was hired straight out of college by the Ecology Department as a water quality researcher, a job he held for the next six years.

His next move came six years later, when he jumped to the private sector to work in regulatory compliance for Kaiser Aluminum, and after five years with Kaiser went back to the public sector as environmental program director for the City of Spokane.

Five years later, he became regional director of the Spokane County Regional Solid Waste System, responsible for managing solid waste, recycling and waste energy for 400,000-plus county residents. “Man, that job had lots of controversy,” he laughed.

Keeping with his pattern of moving on, he left Spokane County after five years to switch over once again to the private sector, taking a job with the engineering consulting firm CH2M Hill.

“But after a few years I had the hankering to get back into the public sector, and had the chance to take a temporary position with the City of Marysville as interim public works director while they searched for a full-time person,” he explained.

He was offered the permanent job in Marysville, but coincidentally, the City of Bremerton was also searching for a public works director at the same time.

“I had a friend working there, so after weighing my options, I decided to go with Bremerton,” he said. “But after six years, the politics there changed, and I started looking again.”

With an Abbey Road-like stride, Phil Williams provides Seaview Elementary second-graders with pedestrian safety instruction in crosswalks and intersections during the school’s 2019 safety awareness day. (File photo by Larry Vogel)

This was when the public works director position in Edmonds came up. He applied and was hired. That was almost 12 years ago. Williams has been here ever since but continues to maintain his residence in Bremerton, making the daily ferry commute to Edmonds.

Thinking back on the projects he’s most enjoyed and taken most pride in during his years in Edmonds, he cites the Main Street renovations and the Five Corners Roundabout as high points.

“The improvements along Main Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues involved some complex design and engineering challenges, and it was very satisfying to solve these and come up with a finished project that most folks seem to like,” he said. “The Five Corners Roundabout faced a lot of backlash and public criticism — it was approved by only a 4-3 council vote, even after we had the grant money —  but after it was done and operating for a while, you could hardly find a person who didn’t like it.”

While his time in Edmonds has been fun and fulfilling and he has definitely left his mark on the community, there have been challenges along the way, some of which go beyond tackling major projects.

“Despite the fact that all my early work was environmental, my job here as public works director caused some folks to profile me as a concrete-pouring engineer/developer with little regard for, or sensitivity to, the environment,” he lamented. “But my education, training and experience has molded me to think like an environmental scientist. It’s a different mindset. It’s the way I think. It’s disappointing for me to be seen by some as not thinking that way.”

Looking to the future, he’s excited about the Highway 99 improvements, especially the proposed center median and the traffic and pedestrian safety measures. “I’ll be sure to come back for the ribbon-cutting,” he added.

So what’s next for Williams?

A pilot for the past 40 years, one of Williams’ passions is flying his Piper Cherokee. (Photo courtesy Phil Williams)

While he enjoys an occasional game of golf, Williams’ overriding outside passion is flying his Piper Cherokee 180, the latest of several aircraft he’s owned over his 40-plus years as a pilot.

“My dad always talked about getting a pilot’s license, but never actually did it,” Williams recalled.

“I was only 23 years old, but figured I’d show him, so I took some of the money I’d earned on the railroad and went for it,” he continued. “There was a guy at Goheen Field near Battleground who said that for $550 he’d train you and guarantee you’d get a private pilot’s license no matter how long it took. Four months later I had my license. Dad was shocked to say the least, and it moved him to finally quit talking about it and get his license too. For a while we each had our own planes and flew together. He eventually quit flying, but I’m still at it.

“It’s a great way to extend your weekends,” he added. “I’ve flown over the Rockies many times to visit my daughter in Montana. My plane isn’t the fastest in the world, but I can fly from Bremerton to Billings in five hours — much better than the 14-to-15-hour drive.”

In addition to flying, Williams loves sports and is an exercise addict. A confirmed Fitbit wearer, he’s always looking to get his daily step goal.

“Commuting on the ferry is a great place to do this,” he related. “I never sit down. I do laps around the boat deck during the crossing, and then walk up the hill to my office. I have no trouble getting 12,000 to 15,000 steps per day, and in nicer weather sometimes 25,000 to 30,000. Nothing feels better than to get in a good day like that!

“I’ve gotta admit that at this point I really don’t know what I’m going to do in retirement,” he said. “But I’m definitely not looking for a leisure lifestyle.”

“My biggest fear about retirement is loss of relevance,” he added.  “I need to be in the game, offer something that’s valued, make worthwhile contributions. If you retire and just go golfing and fishing, that relevance disappears.

“Politics interests me, but not political office,” he continued.  “I could see volunteering on certain issues or in support of certain candidates.”

But whatever lies ahead, with his background, interests, energy and drive, it’s a sure bet that Williams’ retirement will be an adventure like no other.

— By Larry Vogel

  1. Thanks for the great interview. I think Edmonds should consider itself lucky to have Phil for 12 years since most of his other jobs were in the 5-6 year range. I am sure he will be able to find a way to make his retirement relevant.
    Good luck, Phil.

  2. I didn’t know Phil personally, but I have a lasting memory of a very tiny experience that took place years ago. I was at one of those many City open houses for some project. While standing in a crowd of people, a man I didn’t know came up to me, looked down and noticed that my shoe was untied. Without any comment, Phil knelt down and tied my shoe. That little thoughtful gesture is a lasting memory which I am sure Phil does not recall.

    Best wishes Phil!

  3. Phil enjoy your new job and eventual retirement
    My brother also learned to fly at the same field about 10 years before you. Great people

  4. Phil-Thanks for your years of dedicated service to the people of Edmonds. You were always a pleasure to work with when the occasion required. Enjoy the temp job in Redmond and the wild blue yonder after.

  5. I’ve known Phil since his time at Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane. He was well respected by Kaiser personnel, the staff at the Department of Ecology with whom he interacted, and with almost every Edmonds resident I have met. He worked hard to balance ecological protection with more pragmatic interests. Thanks for the opportunity to know you, Phil. All the best to you for your next venture.
    Hank Landau

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