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David Donaldson cites dream job at Seattle zoo

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Donaldson

After seven years as assistant Lake Oswego city manager, David Donaldson announced last week he is making a substantial career change.

Starting April 18, Donaldson will be moving from local government to Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle to serve as vice president of human resources.

The shift might seem unconventional, but it surprises few who know Donaldson.

“It started when I was a kid,” Donaldson said of his interest in zoos. “The thread maybe started when I was 8 or 9, and I got a box tortoise, then I got two flying squirrels, then a ball python.”

He was in college when his father, who had served as a city manager for 20 years, accepted the position of director of the Philadelphia Zoo.

“He took a pay cut to go to the zoo, as I am, and he did that for the last 20 years of his career,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson will be leaving a tenure that saw six different city managers and three mayors.

“I think about adapting to that change and I think for the staff it was important to have that continuity. And perhaps I was that continuity, to some degree,” Donaldson said.

He also served as interim city manager for 10 months in 2012, when he was briefly replaced by Tom Coffee in a move that proved something of an upset, before Scott Lazenby was hired for the role permanently in August 2013. Donaldson said at the time he’d had no intention to try for the position of city manager.

“I didn’t want that job full time. It really stretched me,” he told the Review this week. “I learned more about the budget, about being the (city’s chief executive officer), but it also told me that’s not the job I want.”

He added, “I wanted to do something new, different, but I didn’t want to be city manager, so it was like, ‘Where did the future go?’”

The position at Woodland Park Zoo opened up in January and Donaldson said it was the only position he applied for.

“It’s kind of this desire to combine my love for zoos and then combine it with my interest in human resource management,” he said.

Donaldson agreed it was a departure for him to leave a city where the yearly operating budget is about $421 million to take a job at a nonprofit organization with an annual budget of around $35 million.

Still, there are some interesting parallels.

“(The zoo) has about 40,000 members, so it’s about the size of Lake Oswego,” Donaldson said.

“In some ways, a zoo is like a city,” he said, pointing out that on the municipal level, issues like parks maintenance, customer service, finance, human resources and risk management are among the chief concerns.

“Then there’s the bigger context of how a zoo fits into a city, how it interacts with its citizens,” he added, hinting at what may have given him the edge over other job candidates with education in zoological sciences.

While Lazenby saw the position as a perfect fit for Donaldson, he admitted he was a bit surprised to hear his longtime colleague would be leaving.

“One of the key factors in my decision to apply for this job was the fact (Donaldson) was here,” Lazenby said. “We’ve worked together for some 23 years. He was the recruiter for a position I applied for in Oregon in 1991. Then, when he joined the city of Wilsonville, we were both on the board of the Oregon City Managers Association.”

Lazenby described Donaldson as a voracious reader and something of a trivia buff “with a large repository of movie information” at the ready.

Lazenby can recall a couple examples of Donaldson more than paying for his position in the past year.

“He was the on-the-ground negotiator with the city of Tigard, where we basically agreed to give them more capacity in the future water system than we had originally thought,” Lazenby said. “He worked very closely with his counterpart in Tigard to come up with a win-win situation (with the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership). Frankly, it contributed to keeping our rate increases to single digits instead of double digits.”

Additionally, Donaldson struck a mutually beneficial agreement with other fire districts, like Riverdale, which has an intergovernmental agreement with Lake Oswego for emergency response services.

“He paid his salary for the next couple decades,” Lazenby said.

The city has yet to launch an earnest search for Donaldson’s replacement and will not hire an interim assistant city manager.

“I don’t want to take the spotlight off him in the process,” Lazenby said.

Few who have visited Donaldson’s office would doubt his latest move is part of a natural career progression: His wall is adorned by posters honoring wildlife preserves and a large, framed display of ticket stubs from various zoological gardens.

“It’s a dream job for me,” Donaldson said, estimating he’s visited a total of 120 zoos worldwide in his lifetime.

Berlin has the most impressive collection of exhibits, he said, but Singapore’s is in the best setting.

“It’s like I’m going to something rather than away from something,” he said.

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