‘The CEO mayor’: Nicola Smith reflects on her time leading Lynnwood

Mayor Nicola Smith speaking in 2018. (Lynnwood Today file photo)

When Nicola Smith was first elected mayor of Lynnwood, she vowed to restructure the city to make it a more desirable place to live and work. After seven years, the two-term mayor said she’s prepared to leave office having done just that.

Last year, Smith announced she would not seek a third term as mayor, and on Nov. 2, 53% of voters elected Lynnwood City Councilmember Christine Frizzell to take her place.

Smith said she became mayor – the city’s seventh since Lynnwood became a city in 1959 — at a time when Lynnwood desperately needed new leadership. Prior to her arrival in 2014, the city’s finances were a mess and developers were hesitant to build in Lynnwood because the permitting process was a nightmare, she said.

According to Smith, running a city is like running a business. So when she decided to run for mayor in 2013, her goal was to use her 27 years of experience working in administration to lead the city.

“I don’t think many people understand that a strong mayor is the CEO mayor,” she said.

Smith previously worked at Edmonds College (formerly Edmonds Community College) as dean of student life and development and was also a member of the Rotary Club of Lynnwood. She was urged to run by fellow Rotary Club members, who said the city could benefit from her administrative skills. By the time she agreed, Smith already had support and donors ready to help her.

Mayor Smith (center) with Lynnwood City Councilmembers breaking ground on Sound Transit’s Lynnwood Link light rail station in 2019. (Photo by Cody Sexton)

During her first campaign, Smith beat out Lynnwood City Councilmembers Loren Simmonds and Mark Smith in the primary to earn a spot in the general election, where she defeated incumbent Mayor Don Gough. She promised to refine the city’s customer service, fix antiquated building codes and improve the city’s finances, which she said were “in the dregs,” adding the city had failed several government audits. Smith immediately began involving department directors in the budgeting process, something she said was not done under her predecessor.

“I was given a group of professionals who had never participated very significantly in the budget planning,” she said. “After that, in 2014, we balanced the budget and in the years following we got recognition from the Government Finance Officers Association.”

The city has received the budget award consecutively for its 2017-18, 2019-20 and 2021-22 biennial budgets. Smith attributed the awards to several key factors, including the city’s budgeting for outcomes process that places a greater emphasis on priorities and achievable goals.

Smith (back row, second from left) with Washington State Rep. Lauren Davis and city leaders in Washington, D.C. in early 2020. (Photo courtesy of the City of Lynnwood)

Smith’s administration also oversaw the creation of the city’s Department of Development and Business Services (DBS), which combined city services previously provided by community development, economic development, the fire marshal’s office and public works development services. Smith said she is glad to be able to deliver her campaign promise to make it easier to get building permits in the city. The improvements have also led to fewer customer complaints, she added.

“It has been a huge lift,” she said. “We fixed that problem, so I’m very proud of that.”

Smith’s legacy includes improving the workplace culture at Lynnwood City Hall for city employees. During a recent farewell meeting with the city’s Information Technology Department, Smith said staff told her they appreciated her leadership and enjoyed coming to work each day because of it.

“I feel really good that I’ve been able to provide city staff with a safe and equitable workplace,” she said.

Smith (left) with Luca Keogh (center), and Commander Cole Langdon, right. Luca was the Lynnwood Police Department’s first Little Chief in honor of Chief for a Day in 2019. (Lynnwood Today file photo)

Under Smith’s leadership, Lynnwood became known as a regional partner as the city prepared for the arrival of Sound Transit’s Lynnwood Link light rail in 2024. After taking office, Smith said she made an effort to get involved with mayors from neighboring cities, county leaders and legislative representatives.

“That just opened doors for Lynnwood because people started feeling like they could come and do business here and build here,” she said.

Other accomplishments Smith said she was grateful for overseeing included the establishment of the regional fire authority — South County Fire and transforming the Lynnwood Police Department into a community-focused resource that includes the future Community Justice Center and the corresponding recovery center. 

Smith added that she’s also proud of the creation of Lynnwood’s Sister City and Friendship City programs, which she said have been beneficial in strengthening relationships across Lynnwood’s diverse community. So far, Lynnwood has partnered with cities in South Korea, Mexico and Ethiopia.

“Our communities are coming together now and saying they want one (a sister city or friendship city program),” she said. ”That is serving its purpose in connecting with our immigrant community.”

Smith with Christine Frizzell after initial voting results on Nov. 2 showed her leading to become Lynnwood’s next mayor. (Photo by Cody Sexton)

As she prepares to pass the torch to Frizzell, Smith said her successor should remember to always work collaboratively and keep a humble and gracious attitude, particularly when working with the city council.

As for what’s next, Smith and her husband Del are going to retire on seven acres of land called “Green Velvet” in Snohomish County, where they plan to homestead when they aren’t traveling.

“It’s been a lovely way to end my professional life,” she said. “I’ve really, really loved doing this.”

Smith recently released a book, Mayor Nicola Smith: Grateful Steward, written by Patricia Vaccarino, that chronicles her time as mayor. The 190-page book includes commentary from civic leaders from Lynnwood, Edmonds, Mukilteo, Mountlake Terrace and Snohomish County and can be found on Amazon. Smith said she hopes the book will inspire other people to take leadership roles in their community.

“I just wanted it accessible to everybody who was on this journey with me,” she said.

–By Cody Sexton

  1. I am pleased to hear that the Mayor made these improvements to city departments, and to the budget process. I look forward to seeing how well Mayor Frizzell leads the departments, the council, etc. It seems she has big shoes to fill–best of luck to the entire team. And thanks for writing such a terrific article, Cody Sexton. It was interesting to see the 2019 photo which includes Shirley Sutton, newly elected council member!

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