It’s 11 a.m. and Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic is leaning back in his chair with his fingers laced behind his snowcapped head. A fish tattoo, rendered in Coastal Salish style, peeks out from under the cuff of his rolled up shirtsleeves. “I always wanted a tattoo,” he said, recalling the naked lady tattoo his grandfather had on his forearm. “But everyone was always so worried about what it would look like when I got old, I had to wait until I was old to get one.”
It’s the first of many offhanded anecdotes Gary will tell throughout the day, but if there’s one thing that everyone agrees upon
about Gary, it’s that he’s funny. City council meetings have been filled with his well-timed quips for years and it doesn’t take too long in a conversation for him to sneak a zinger in. It’s his signature and he’s good at it.
As he reflects on his pending retirement – Gary leaves office on June 30 – he says humor is more than looking for a laugh. Instead, it’s been a strategic tool for management throughout his career.
“Humor is a very important skill to have in almost all situations,” he said. “If you use it wisely and deliberately it can help you diffuse tense situations and build relationships. There is a fine line, but laughter is good medicine and has value in the workplace. It’s just not fun to work with people who don’t have a sense of humor.”
Thirteen years have passed since Gary took on the role as Blaine’s city manager – a position he never intended to keep. “I came here as an interim city manager while I looked for something else,” he said. “It was about bigger and better for me, and I was adamant that I didn’t want the job. But I’ve always done well in small communities and the more I worked here, the more I liked it, so I applied.”
He went through the application process like every other hopeful but already had an ‘in’ with the council. “We liked what we saw in the six months he was with us as interim manager,” said council member Bonnie Onyon. “We interviewed others, but we saw good improvements while he was here in terms of morale and how things were handled, and we felt like he would be a good fit for the job.”
Over the years, he has proved them right, consistently working to fortify and expand the city’s infrastructure and instituting measures that would benefit the city over the long haul such as long-term forecasting and expense reports that looked ahead two or three years at a time. “He has been constantly watchful,” Onyon said. “He was always looking at the bottom line and for anything that might be coming down the pike. We always knew exactly where we were with Gary, and we liked that.”
The changes he implemented across the city haven’t just been behind the scenes, though. Gary has worked to improve the
visual appeal of the downtown area, finding funding for parklets and street improvements as well as dealing with the community on a personal level.
“One of the things I’ve learned from Gary over the years is that you’re never too big to do the small stuff,” said Blaine tourism manager Debbie Harger. “When citizens have complained he’s even gone out and trimmed overgrown vegetation on city streets on his lunch breaks.”
“People like him and he’s going to be missed,” said city planner Michael Jones. “He’s very open, a good communicator and very interested in other perspectives. Those are great traits for a manager to have.”
Responsible for supervising the various department heads across the city, Gary acts as a jack-of-all-trades mentor, listening to the needs of the city and advising accordingly. “He’s not a planner or an engineer or a police chief or a finance manager,” Jones said, “but his position incorporates all of those things. He has no trouble being where the buck stops and he does his job well.”
According to Gary, the key to success is to hire good people and just get out of their way. “I don’t pretend to be smarter than my public works director or police chief,” Gary said. “They are the experts. It’s just my job to help them any way I can.”
Managing a city wasn’t what Gary had planned for his life. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing when I was in college,” he said. He first wanted to teach. He received a graduate degree in education from Utah State before being hired as an instructional media specialist in his home school district of Price, Utah.
There he served 12 school libraries and taught speech, debate and drama. It was what he thought he wanted, but he soon found himself unhappy. “I was full of myself,” he said. “I thought more of my abilities than I really had and I just couldn’t imagine why after five years I hadn’t been made superintendent of the district yet.”
He didn’t have to wait too long for a change.
His political involvement — he was running for county commissioner and was active in the local Democratic party — garnered him an unexpected opportunity. The mayor of the city had heard of his zeal and called him in for a meeting. Six hours later, Gary left with a new job title city administrator.
It was a first for both Gary and the city, and they learned the ropes together. “I went in the next day and thought to myself, ‘Now what the heck do I do?’ I’d never been to a city council meeting in my life. I didn’t know anything about running a city,” Gary said. “I often think I ought to go give them their money back.”
From there, Gary moved his family around as his career progressed from Utah through Colorado and on to Washington.
“I wasn’t a very modern man then,” he admitted. “I was really focused on my career, and moved to places based on that
rather than if my family would like to live there or not. I’ve matured since then.”
Now, Renate, his wife of 43 years and high school sweetheart, will get to call the shots. “She’s always been so supportive and she’s made a lot of sacrifices, both personal and professional, along the way,” he said. “I’m pretty sure, in some cases, she’s the reason I got the jobs in the first place. I made a deal with her when I took this position that when I retired, she would get to choose where we live.”
Gary met Renate when he was a senior and she was a sophomore at their high school in Price, and fell for her vivacious personality. They dated throughout college. Gary asked her to marry him his junior year of college, only for her to accept and then renege on the offer. “She dumped me,” he said. “I was young,” she countered.
A year later, they were married.
Since then, they’ve raised two children together, and have discovered that moving from city to city as Gary followed his career has only served to pull them into a deeper relationship over the years.
“I know people say it often, but she really is my best friend,” he said. “You have to be that way with each other when you’ve moved around as much as we have because it’s tough to make lasting relationships,” he said.
Renate said she has tried to work with her husband to embrace each community they’ve been a part of, even though “We never knew when we would be leaving.”
“Gary and Renate are the kind of people that you can’t separate them as a couple,” Harger said. “They are so supportive of the community and they do it together. It’s not just Gary out there.”
Gary said he feels confident about the footing the town is on as he sets out on his next adventure.
“I have not regretted one single day of my decision to work in Blaine. I’m proud that our community has been improved in so many ways,” he said. “I’m leaving the city in good shape in terms of infrastructure and I think the new city manager is inheriting a city that doesn’t require a lot of expense and effort in that regard.”
Gary will pass the torch on to newcomer Dave Wilbrecht at the end of this week, and then step into retirement—literally.
He plans to walk through Spain on the Camino de Santiago with Renate this fall, and they’ve already started training to work up to the distances needed to enjoy the 500-mile route.
“I told her there’s no way in hell we’re not going,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve already told too many people. It’s going to be a wonderful adventure for us.”