Assistant City Manager Stephen Clifton, who guided MLT Civic Campus redevelopment, retires

Stephen Clifton

After five years working as the City of Mountlake Terrace’s assistant city manager — and a long career in government service — Stephen Clifton is retiring this week.

Clifton says he is most proud of his efforts to guide the city’s Civic Campus redevelopment, completed in 2021, and also his work on the Town Center project and the multifamily tax exemption program. But he is also being remembered for the many ways he stepped in to oversee city business during the past several months, after prior City Manager Scott Hugill took a leave of absence and then resigned for health reasons.

Mountlake Terrace Mayor Pro Tem Bryan Wahl offered his special thanks to Clifton during the city council’s April 17 business meeting. “I want to make sure the world knows how much we truly appreciated everything you’ve done for us from the beginning,” Wahl said. “You’ve carried the water across the finish line on a number of key projects and you stepped up when we needed you to step up to do even more as the acting city manager. You’ve really, really had an impact and really made a huge difference in this city in helping us keep moving forward at a time that we were struggling in a lot of ways.”

Councilmember Rory Paine-Donovan agreed, adding that because of Clifton, “I’ve really gotten a chance to appreciate how quiet staff leaders really keep the trains running on time in small governments like ours.

“I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that we might owe you for even being in this room right now,” continued Paine-Donovan, referring to the city council chambers inside the new Mountlake Terrace City Hall. “I’m not sure this building would have been built without you. Your legacy here will bear fruit for years to come.”

L-R: Assistant City Manager Stephen Clifton, City Councilmembers Rory Paine-Donovan and Bryan Wahl, and Congresswoman Suzan DelBene discuss the Mountlake Terrace Town Center during a tour of the city in February. (MLTnews file photo by Cody Sexton)

Clifton, 65, came to Mountlake Terrace in 2018 from Snohomish County, where he had served as an executive director in county government. Prior to that, he spent 14 years with the City of Edmonds as the city’s community services and economic development director.

Clifton grew up in Spokane and graduated from Washington State University in 1981 with a degree in landscape architecture. But after working in the field, he found himself drawn to urban planning. In 1987, he returned to school, earning a master of urban planning at the University of Washington.

From there, Clifton worked for several Puget Sound area cities — including Redmond, Olympia, Kent and Federal Way. Joining the City of Federal Way in 1990 as a senior planner was particularly satisfying, he said, because “it was a brand-new city, just incorporated from King County. The thought of helping a group of individuals establish their local government in all forms — from public safety to public works to planning – I found that so attractive and so exciting.”

In 1999, Clifton was named Federal Way’s director of community and economic development. A year later, he was hired by then Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson as community services director, a title that was later expanded to include economic development.

During his time at the City of Edmonds, Clifton was instrumental in the formation of the Edmonds Public Facilities District and Edmonds Downtown Business Improvement District. He served as the city’s project lead for the Edmonds Center for the Arts, Edmonds Crossing Multimodal Project, Sound Transit Edmonds Station, and Fire Station 16. He also helped secure funding to build Edmonds Center for the Arts in addition to other projects and programs.

In 2010, Haakenson resigned to become deputy county executive at Snohomish County, and in 2014 Clifton also joined county government as an executive director and chief of staff. Four years later, in 2018, Clifton moved to Mountlake Terrace to serve as assistant city manager.

Haakenson said that during Clifton’s time in Edmonds, he “became the Swiss army knife” for city staff. “His knowledge of all city issues was broad, and often I asked him to lead major projects,” Haakenson said. “If I was unavailable, he was my backup. He was always calm and collected no matter the stress level. His contributions to my staff and the citizens of Edmonds can’t be overstated. I wish him the best in retirement.”

Phil Williams, now serving as Mountlake Terrace’s interim public works director, said he has worked with Clifton for more than 15 years, including time when they were both at the City of Edmonds. “He is the most capable, thorough and compassionate local government employee I have encountered in that time,” Williams said. “He is loyal to both his employer and his coworkers and is highly ethical. He will truly be missed in Mountlake Terrace just as he has been in Snohomish County and Edmonds during a long career in local government.”

Bernadette Taylor-Moses, an administrative assistant in the Mountlake Terrace public works department, noted that Clifton “was at the helm of the new city hall project leading up to and during the height of the pandemic. He took every new twist and turn in stride, working with others to create a wonderful new facility for the staff and community of Mountlake Terrace.

“He’s definitely made a difference within the community and has guided the employees of the City of Mountlake into a new era with his leadership skills,” Taylor-Moses said.

Reflecting on his city government experiences, Clifton expressed his “sincere appreciation for anyone and everyone who takes the time to invest themselves in their community,” whether it’s speaking at city council meetings, volunteering for work parties or running for office.

“That’s what I really enjoy about this job. I like community building, and you can’t do that without the community,” Clifton said. He also praised his co-workers, “who were amazing individuals. I couldn’t have asked for better teammates throughout my career. And the elected officials as well.”

Clifton said he looks forward to traveling, taking time for more creative endeavors and just relaxing after a busy career in government service.

— By Teresa Wippel

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