"Are those your grandkids?" he asked one woman whose desk was decorated with baby pictures. "Nice little office you have here."
"You've done some great stats on hybrids," he said to another woman. "I want to talk to you about how to reduce fuel consumption."
Walking down a hallway, they met a technician. The IT guy's office is tucked into a windowless back corner. "I notice that theme, IT guys are always tucked into some closet," King said to him, and laughed. "Your morale is still OK?"
King's people skills are among his greatest strengths, and one reason he landed this job four months ago, according to professional cohorts. He's trained in mediation, and a natural at consensus building. He's a good listener and he really seems to like people. It shows.
He chatted for a while with four guys in the sign shop about the politics of placing stop signs.
The city employees love this, said the public works director.
King stops in a garage to discuss ambulance engines with the mechanic. "What's the issue?" he asked. But besides mechanical problems, he has other thoughts when he sees a big red truck: "I should have brought my kid!"
And that's what his story keeps coming back to. His family. After "trustworthy" and "organized" and other blasé words used to portray who he is, everyone describes him as "a family man."
At 33, King is the youngest city manager known to Bend. His career is surging. But King, who says his family is his number one priority, says one of his proudest achievements happened at home recently.
It was a Monday night, around 7 p.m. His wife Martha was at book club. He was alone with their toddler and infant, in charge of bathing, feeding and putting them to bed, when Mayor Bruce Abernethy called.
Rock star Sheryl Crow was going to be late for her upcoming concert, Abernethy told King. Could he extend the night time noise deadline? King had to weigh the risk of angry fans cheated of a full concert with angry neighbors deprived of sleep from the loud music. All this, while "I'm home with the kids, feeding them," King said. "My son's asking, 'Can I talk to Bruce?' and I said, 'Bruce wants you to eat your dinner.'"
He pulled it all off, he said. "I was able to put both of them down easily," he said. "I was so proud."
And Sheryl Crow, she got the extra time to serenade her local fans.
For a guy who wants to shade his kids from the public light (he does not want their names or ages published) he brings them up a lot. But besides the minutia of city government, what else does he have to talk about?
"It's all about the kids," he said. His weekend outings are at a local museum, park or pool. He and his wife don't go out much. He used to love backpacking and bike riding, but he's not doing much of either these days. On a Friday in August he decided to take the family camping near Elk Lake. While stopping at REI for some last minute things, the toddler fell apart. King bagged the camping trip.
Decision making, according to King's wife Martha, is one of his best skills.
Eric and Martha King met on a blind date when they both lived in Portland. A friend of hers set them up. "We were engaged within eight months," she said.
They're compatible, she said, because he's so organized and decisive - and she's not. And, he cleans and does dishes, Martha said.
"I feel like I'm the luckiest woman in the world," she said in a phone interview. "He likes things organized and tidy and he's got things his own way."
Sounds a little anal retentive, I said. She laughed. "I do like Type A people," she responded.
"He likes to plan things in great detail," she said. "He loves Excel spread sheets. If he could put everything in one, he'd love that. All our trips, all expenses, day by day. It's funny."
After the kids and his work, Eric King loves The Weather Channel.
"I am constantly watching The Weather Channel," he said. "Part of the reason behind that is, twice as a child we were hit by tornadoes." He's been a little paranoid and obsessive about weather ever since. That seems to be getting better.
He's Catholic but hasn't found a church here yet. (There's only one in town.) He wouldn't admit it, but his wife said he watches reality TV. He doesn't want to talk about the presidential election with a reporter.
A Focused Kid
Eric King was born and raised in Madison, Wisc., a town known for its spirited college campus atmosphere. But Eric wasn't one to be distracted.
His dad, Joseph King, now a retired land-use planner for the state of Wisconsin, said in grade school and high school, Eric hung out with other academic kids. He had a good group of friends, and he studied a lot. He could solve the Rubik's cube. He was given high-responsibility jobs - like managing a mall store - in high school. People have always trusted him, Joseph said.
Eric was an intuitive, patient and detail-oriented kid who loved to draw and seemed quite adept at it, according to his proud father. Joseph thought Eric might be an architect, since he was drawing houses to scale at a young age.
During high school, Eric did want to be an architect when he grew up, he said.
"I like to see how things fit. I liked floor plans, maps," Eric said. "I love flying and seeing things from that 30,000 foot level. You have to have that overarching view as a city manager, too."
But he never aspired to be a city manager, he said. "I was not on that path."
Eric studied architecture but later changed his major to economics and sociology at the University of Wisconsin. He moved to Oregon and earned a master's in urban and regional planning at Portland State University, along with a certificate in real estate development.
He worked for the city of Portland for almost 10 years, mostly for the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, doing program development and management.
His former boss, Amalia Alarcon De Morris, raves about him. She described him as warm and engaging, "a visionary" who is "very analytical."
In Portland, King created programs that required him to build relationships between police, neighborhoods, and social service agencies. He impressed his bosses so much, they doled out more challenging responsibilities. He pulled people together and he managed his staff effectively, said Alarcon De Morris. He juggled different factions of the community and got them all pointed in a direction that was in the city's best interest, she said.
"He made people feel heard. So at the end of the day, whether they got what they came for, they felt the process fair and open," she said.
She also credits him with saving the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. There was a period of time when the bureau lost its credibility and some key partners, such as neighborhood associations and the police department. As a result, the bureau lost a big chunk of its budget. But Eric became the business operations supervisor and turned that around, primarily by fixing damaged relationships.
She figured he'd be a director for some Portland bureau next. Instead, he moved to Bend.
"He's phenomenal and we miss him terribly," Alarcon De Morris gushed.
When King started at the city as the assistant city manager in April, 2007, he was charged with implementing Bend 2030 - a long term vision plan for the city. He worked for about seven months as the assistant city manager before the city council fired his boss - former city manager Andy Anderson - over management style differences.
The council chose King as interim city manager in November of 2007. In May of 2008, he beat out some 70 applicants for the position permanently.
The city manager runs the city kind of like a CEO runs a private company, overseeing everything from personnel issues to daily operations. The elected, volunteer city council can hire and fire city managers at will.
King's predecessor Anderson was the third city manager to rotate out of City Hall in the last eight years. In 2000, after the city council split over growth issues, the council majority ousted long-timer Larry Patterson. They hired David Hales, but pushed him to resign about three years later. Then came Anderson, who lasted about three years before his firing.
I asked King if that record made him nervous about his job security.
"Surprisingly no," he said. He said his strengths - relationships and team building - are qualities that should protect him.
He's focused on working closely with the council, so the volunteer board is equipped to make good decisions, and so the members are happy with his management, he said.
The city council gambled in hiring him amid economic and leadership turmoil, he said. But his peers and superiors seem very comfortable with the choice.
Mayor Abernethy said King is upbeat, and has an "inclusive" personality that is working well.
"He has phenomenal listening and speaking skills, is well organized and, given his participation in Bend 2030, is able to articulate the vision for our community," Abernethy said in an email.
"His straightforward approach in sharing both good (and not so good) news engenders a great deal of confidence in him from council, staff and the broader community. His performance has completely allayed any concerns that might have existed around his age and previous experience," Abernethy wrote.
Right after he took the job as city manager, King approached each councilor to talk about all sorts of things. Among topics, King told councilors the city's budget was in worse trouble than they knew. "My sense is that I think we should have known about it earlier (under Anderson). I give credit to Eric for letting us know as soon as he was able to do so," Abernethy said.
City Recorder Patty Stell, who has worked under seven city managers, said she believes he is different from many managers of the past.
"He is really in tune with solutions that are mutually beneficial to all parties involved," she said. He's got a calm and settling demeanor, and his presence has already improved the vibe at City Hall, where she said employees are now working better as a team.
"He's also very easy to get along with and to respect as my superior," she said of King. Despite his age, "there's nothing weird about having him as a boss."
"When you work with Eric, it becomes apparent right away that he has a depth of experience and insight," she said.