Edmonds City Council moves ahead on hearing for city manager government

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The Edmonds City Council move closer to adopting a city manager form of government Tuesday night, voting 4-2 to hold a public hearing July 20 to obtain citizen comment and possibly take action to place the measure on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

Councilmember Michael Plunkett, who has been advocating for the switch in recent months and accelerated his efforts after Mayor Gary Haakenson announced his resignation at the June 1 council meeting, was joined by Councilmembers Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, Diane Buckshnis and Steve Bernheim in voting to hold the hearing.

In a letter attached to the Council agenda, Plunkett stated that he believes that a council-manager form of government “combines strong and accountability elected leadership with professional managerial experience. It has the added benefits of staying away from the political divisiveness and political gamesmanship of our present strong mayor form of government.”

The measure was opposed by Councilmembers Strom Peterson and D.J. Wilson, who both stated their desire to keep the current mayor-city council structure.

“I think the dynamic between elected officials is an important one,” Peterson said. “I think it’s a better form of government.”

Wilson, a former college political science professor and current public policy consultant, said he hasn’t heard a good argument for making the switch. “What is so wrong about our current system that it needs changing?” he asked. He then walked the council through a classroom-type exercise for deciding which form of government would best serve Edmonds residents. He pointed to various factors about Edmonds — from an engaged electorate that has a high voter  turnout to an unstable city council with constantly changing faces — that make a mayor-city council government a better choice. In addition, Wilson said, assertions that a city manager position would reduce expenses for the city are untrue, as most city managers are paid far more than the mayor’s current salary.

According to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, a council-manager form of government consists of an elected city council that is responsible for policy making and a professional city manager, appointed by the council, who is responsible for administration. The city manager provides policy advice, directs the city government’s daily operations, handles personnel functions and is responsible for preparing the city budget.

For now, however, Edmonds does have a mayor — and the council needs to find a replacement when Haakenson leaves in early July to begin work as Snohomish County Deputy Executive. To that end, council members agreed on the mayoral application process, which will mirror the process used to fill a vacant city council seat. Applications will be posted on the City of Edmonds website with a deadline of July 7. The council will interview candidates July 13 and vote for appointment during the July 20 council meeting. Applicants must be registered voters, have lived in Edmonds at least a year, and not be convicted felons.

In another major piece of business Tuesday, Haakenson asked councilmembers to decide how they wanted city staff to approach the 2011 budget development process, given projections that the city will be facing a significant budget deficit. There has been much talk about placing a levy before voters to make up some or all of the shortfall, but the council decided to take a go-slow approach and will be appointing an eight-member citizens committee to take a look at the scope and timing of such a measure. Meanwhile, Haakenson stressed the importance of choosing one of two options for guiding the city’s budget creation:

1) Maintain the status quo budget numbers, which assumes that the council will place a successful levy before voters to address the shortfall.

2) Develop a budget that includes what Haakenson described as “severe budget cuts,” including numerous layoffs and reduced services to citizens.

After some discussion — including Wilson’s assertion that he had little confidence the council would be able to place a levy on the ballot in a timely fashion — the council voted 4-2 (Wilson and Peterson opposed) to direct Haakenson and staff to prepare a budget without cuts that assumes levy passage.

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