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Marlene Feist brings new skills, strong reputation to top public works job in Spokane

Marlene Feist stops for a moment Wednesday at the Place of Truths Plaza in Spokane. Feist, in her 22nd year of working for the city, takes on the title of director of public works, which makes her the first woman to fulfill the role.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Marlene Feist stops for a moment Wednesday at the Place of Truths Plaza in Spokane. Feist, in her 22nd year of working for the city, takes on the title of director of public works, which makes her the first woman to fulfill the role. (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When Marlene Feist joined the city of Spokane, the woman who is now her boss, Mayor Nadine Woodward, was still a nightly news anchor for KREM.

In fact, the city didn’t yet have the “strong mayor” form of government.

All of which is to say, Feist has navigated through a lot in more than two decades with the city.

Feist was confirmed as the city’s new public works director on Monday. Never uncertain, her confirmation by the Spokane City Council was unanimous.

Feist, the first woman ever appointed to the public works post, is widely regarded as a nearly bottomless vault of city knowledge and an adept communicator who has earned the respect of both public works employees and city leaders.

“It’s a privilege to be able to serve my community this way and to serve our citizens,” Feist said.

She takes the reins from Scott Simmons, a holdover from the administration of Mayor David Condon who was recently hired away as the new CEO of Spokane County.

Simmons described Feist on Monday as having “unparallelled knowledge of city operations.”

“She’s a very reliable public servant, creative and strategic thinker, and truly wants what’s best for our community,” Simmons told the City Council before its confirmation vote.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton has worked with Feist since 2005, both as a city employee and a council member. She summarized Feist’s work succinctly.

“Marlene knows the city,” Stratton said.

Feist’s career with the city began in 1998 in communications as a lower-level public information coordinator. The path she took from communications to the top of public works, a field once typically led by men with backgrounds in engineering, isn’t exactly straight.

The Montana native steadily worked her way up to become the city’s communications director. But a year into former Mayor David Condon’s first term, he opted for his own communications director – Brian Coddington, who left but returned to the job under Woodward – and Feist was reassigned to public works as the communications manager for utilities.

“What I found was that I really like public works,” Feist said. “We were making things happen for the community, delivering critical services, and I just sort of buried myself in that.”

Feist was eventually promoted to director of strategic initiatives for public works, a job she held until now.

But she’s already had a head start in the new role, as she’s filled in for Simmons while he served as interim city administrator since last fall.

“I do know all those department heads in our division which makes a big difference, and I can tell you that just running communications keeps me on top of lots of issues,” Feist said.

Feist is unlike Simmons and his predecessor, Rick Romero, in that they both had careers more focused in financial management, while Feist’s skillset is primarily communications.

She and the people who appointed her see that as an asset.

“A lot of my job is being a translator between people who do technical jobs and people who don’t,” Feist said. “It’s a lot of keeping track of what’s important and trusting your professionals, who are your department heads.”

Feist is also unique in that she’s a woman in what was once a male-dominated role.

But Feist doesn’t necessarily think of it that way. Though public works is traditionally viewed as a male-dominated field, Feist acknowledged, she is quick to point out that several of her colleagues in public works are women, including director of wastewater management Raylene Gennett, director of sustainability Cadie Olsen, and director of integrated capital management Katherine Miller.

The city also has more women at cabinet-level positions than when Feist began working for the city.

“Things that might have seemed odd 20 years ago don’t seem odd anymore,” Feist said.

What hasn’t changed is the delicate nature of city politics. Feist works directly for the mayor, but has eight elected officials of whom she’ll need to meet the demands. It’s a responsibility she doesn’t shrink away from.

“It’s a matter of understanding what it is our elected officials want to achieve and trying to help them get there,” Feist said. “You have to see if you can come up with a solution that makes the most sense for the most people.”

Feist will play a role in fortifying the administration’s relationship with the City Council, which Woodward has made a priority of rebuilding after the bond disintegrated between former Mayor Condon and the previous City Council.

Feist is beloved by council members, while Simmons’ dustups with the council were part of the friction between Condon’s administration and the council.

Stratton, now serving her second term on the council, believes Feist will foster a better working environment in the public works department, pointing to her abilities to communicate and share the credit for successes with her colleagues.

“Employees are going to feel valued, which they haven’t in a very long time,” Stratton said.

Council President Breean Beggs shared Stratton’s enthusiasm.

“Everyone, I can tell you, on the council is really excited to be working with you and to see where we go as a city,” Beggs said on Monday.

In the immediate future, Feist’s work will include overseeing the $125 million “next level of treatment” upgrades to the Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility, which are slowly coming online now.

The city is also converting to an every-other-week recycling pickup schedule to reduce costs beginning in May.

“It’s a change, so we want people to be comfortable with change,” Feist said.

Feist has also been given the task of devising a return-to-work plan for the city’s more than 2,000 employees as the pandemic recedes. It’s a constantly moving target as state guidelines evolve and more employees become eligible for the vaccine.

And that’s just a fraction of what’s on her radar in her first few months.

“I’m excited,” Feist said.

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