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Friendly roast for Fitch as town bids farewell to Mr. 'Meat & Potatoes'

At a June 29 send-off bash hosted by the town of Friday Harbor, administrator King Fitch, retiring after a 25-year tenure, gets a chuckle as water systems manager Mike Wilks reads a mock
At a June 29 send-off bash hosted by the town of Friday Harbor, administrator King Fitch, retiring after a 25-year tenure, gets a chuckle as water systems manager Mike Wilks reads a mock 'violation' notice delivered by Steve Deem, right, of the state Department of Health.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

King Fitch followed a familiar route to town on his last day on the job.

But somewhere along the way, he had a thought or two that were altogether unfamiliar.

“I started thinking after today that I won’t have to worry about the town’s water supply,” quipped Fitch, noting at the outset of a brief but heartfelt farewell address that the water level of Trout Lake was never far from mind, at least for the past 25 years or so. Few recall the drought years of the early 1990s the way that King Fitch does.

County Auditor Milene Henley is one who does.

“I remember how incredibly responsive he was,” said Henley, who butted heads with the town years ago when a waterline construction project turned well-water at her San Juan Valley home to brown. “We talked to King a lot during those days. He’s a great guy. To stay in that job that long takes an incredible amount of diplomacy.”

On June 29, Fitch’s 25-year tenure as administrator of the Town of Friday Harbor came to its official end. A two-hour retirement celebration hosted Friday by the town drew to the Council Chambers a steady stream of local residents, merchants, politicians, well-wishers and public officials, in addition to family, friends and fellow co-workers, and former ones too, as well as representatives from several state agencies.

From the Washington State Association of Cities, Fitch received a plaque noting his years of public service and longevity at his post. From the state Department of Health, which monitors the town’s water quality, he received, a “notice of violation”, in jest, for failure to give adequate notice of retirement of individual whose performance the department deems as “exceeding standards”.

Back in 1987, when he was selected for the job by the late Jim Cahail, mayor of the town at the time, Fitch vowed that he would be “accommodating” and be a facilitator. Boundary Water engineer Dan Drahn believes that Fitch made good on those promises.

“I think he was always calm, even when things got hot, and always fair,” Drahn said. “That’s not easy to do when you’ve worked with so many different councils.”

As a mentor, former town councilwoman Carrie Brooks said that Fitch excelled. She praised the patience with which he helped each newly elected council member understand the town’s inner workings and foundation of its finances. Not an easy task, Brooks said, and with some more than others.

“I know I drove him crazy,” she said. “I knew zippo when I came in. He taught me to be the councilperson that I was able to become.”

Fitch, who turned 65 in January, walks away from the post as the longest-serving city administrator in Washington state, if not the nation. He presided over the town during an era of unprecedented growth. In 1980, a total of 1,200 people called the town of Friday Harbor home. By 2010, the population, at 2,162, had nearly doubled.

County councilman Howie Rosenfeld, a former town councilman and volunteer fire chief, recalls the priority that Fitch put on taking care of the basics, like improvement of town utilities, roads and installation of sidewalks, curbs and gutters. While plenty of people pushed for taking care of business with experimental ideas, Rosenfeld said that while Fitch would “always listen”, he stuck with “meat and potatoes”, with doing things the way they were supposed to be done, and that little by little the town transformed into what it is today.

“I’d say that ‘always’ is the word that comes to mind,” Rosenfeld said. “He was just so steadfast in his approach. He would always give you the time and would always listen, but it was important to him to keep to the basics and to do it right.”

In September, Fitch announced that would be stepping down at the end of June. He has been busy grooming his successor, Duncan Wilson, a former administrator of the city of North Bend, Wash., for the past several months. Wilson acknowledges that he has “big shoes to fill”, and, in recalling his own recent retirement from his North Bend post, that Fitch probably won’t mind if there’s a few bumps and bruises along the way.

“We joked about that he wants me to succeed, but not very well,” Wilson said. “I think that’s human nature, everyone wants to be missed.”

Given his legacy, the ‘Fitch Years’ will no doubt be remembered.

“I feel really blessed to have had this job,” Fitch said. “I’ve truly enjoyed it, and I’m going to miss it.”

 

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