Edmonds resident Maggie Fimia offered some thoughtful suggestions regarding a proposed council-manager form of government during the public testimony portion of Tuesday night’s Edmonds City Council meeting. We are posting her comments here, in hopes of furthering community discussions.
I served eight years on the King County Council, which has a strong, separately elected executive. I also served for four years on the Shoreline City Council, which has a council/manager form of government. I don’t presume to know what is best for Edmonds.
Before putting a measure on the ballot, I would encourage the council and public to first identify the goals for any change and then identify viable alternatives, including hybrids of both structures.
In my experience, city managers may have more professional training than an elected mayor, but they are also absolutely creatures of politics. In theory, they are supposed to take policy direction from the majority of the council members. They should guide the council through analysis and public process. In real life, however, because the council majority can change every two years, many managers will find the path of least resistance.
Firing a city manager can be very difficult and is legally risky. When you think about it, they control all the staff and all the information flow. If the situation has become so bad that you have to fire someone, how do you do it without them undermining the whole process or get accused and sued for violating the Open Public Meetings Act? I have included some examples from around the country.
Any public official should generally make good decisions based on two fundamental pieces of information: What direction does the public want to go, and what are the real costs and benefits of the alternative to get them there? Neither model ensures you get that information.
I would like to offer the following suggestions, no matter which model is chosen:
1. Performance Measures: Adopt into law a process for setting performance measures. Ideally, this process starts early in the budget cycle and begins with the public. What are their priorities given our budget? How do we measure success? For example, usually high on the list are more sidewalks, maintenance of infrastructure, parks programs and protecting neighborhood character. There are ways of measuring outcomes for those items. Those outcome goals should drive the budget. The departments are part of that process to be sure the legal and basic requirements are met.
2. Annual Report Card of Performance Measures: An annual report card provides the public and council with real measurements and outcomes to see how the executive branch is performing and if modifications are necessary.
3. Elected Mayor/City Administrator: If more professional administration is the goal, I’m sure you have considered keeping an elected mayor, paying them less and hiring a city administrator. That way, there is still someone who can pull all the parties together, and provide leadership and direct accountability to the public.
4. Council Analyst: Provide for at least one analyst position directly hired and accountable to the council and accessible to any councilmember, within reason. Part-time councilmembers who are discouraged from talking to even one other councilmember outside of meetings (legal interpretation, not State RCW) and has to go through the executive to talk to staff is at an enormous disadvantage under any model.
To do your job, you have to be able to propose ideas, ask questions and get analysis done. I used to spend 80 percent of my time at the county and the city, just trying to get information because, most of the time, the executive branch already had an agenda and was gearing all the “analysis” to get to that outcome. That is a legal model, not a legislative model. It makes the public feel like their government is not listening and council takes the heat.
My concern is that few councilmembers can spend that kind of time, so they don’t. They defer to the “experts.” The “experts” may know how to get there, but the public should determine where we are going.
5. Checks and Balances: Build in more checks and balances by having the president of the city council chair the council and committee meetings The Mayor does a great job, but if it is the council making decisions about the mayor’s proposals,his role is one of presenting and answering questions at that point — not facilitating the meeting.
Note that some of these possible changes require a change in the charter. It would be unusual to change the charter without a comprehensive look at other possible changes so that you send the voters a manageable but cohesive list of amendments to consider.
I think institutionalizing publicly driven performance measures could provide the foundation for any governing option.
I appreciate all your work on our behalf and I commend you for the incredibly beautiful, friendly city you have created. It works for many. I know your goal is to be sure it works for ALL now and in the future.
— Maggie Fimia