Mayor vs. city manager: A recap of how we got here and what’s next
On Tuesday, the Edmonds City Council will hold a public hearing — and possibly take action — on Councilmember Michael Plunkett’s idea to place before voters a proposal that would change Edmonds from a mayor-led to a city manager-led form of government. Given all of the recent government turnover — including the appointment of two people to fill vacant council seats in the past six months and another council vote — also scheduled for Tuesday — to fill the empty Edmonds mayor seat, the collective heads of many Edmonds residents appear to be spinning about this latest change.
A My Edmonds News poll posted here since the idea was first proposed has drawn 215 votes so far, with 47 percent in favor, 47 percent against and 6 percent undecided.
So here’s a summary of how we got to this point, as well as links to background information and opinions that have been presented in recent months.
On April 7, Plunkett said he planned to ask the council to consider placing such a measure before Edmonds voters. The three-term Edmonds councilmember said he believed the timing was right to introduce the measure, since then-Mayor Gary Haakenson was nearing the end of his third time and had already said he wouldn’t run again.
At the time, Plunkett said there was no specific incident or concern that prompted his decision, describing it as “something I’ve had on my mind for several years.” However, he added that he believed the change “will make the council closer to the people of Edmonds and more responsive.”
On May 10, Plunkett announced he had changed his mind, stating he was worried about the timing of a fundamental change in city government at the same time the City Council is dealing with budget woes and labor negotiations — plus a possible levy before voters. While Plunkett said he was confident that Edmonds voters would approve the measure if it ended up on the ballot, the aftermath would be less than ideal, given that the council would be addressing “one of the most difficult budgets it has ever faced.” He left open the possibility of pursuing the concept in 2011.
On June 4, three days after Haakenson told the council he was resigning as mayor as of July 1 to take a job as Deputy Snohomish County Executive, Plunkett announced the city manager idea was back on the table. “I was willing to put off Council consideration of council-manager form of government because of the need for stability for rest of the year,” Plunkett wrote in a letter explaining his change of position. “That premise has been blown out of the water by the mayor’s action.”
“Therefore now is the perfect time to put before the voters the question of council-manager,” Plunkett added. “I have asked the Edmonds Council President to please put on our agenda for a public hearing a council-manager form of government with the next few weeks. After the hearing I will be asking the council to put it on the ballot on the next available election.” Plunkett even went so far as to suggest a candidate for city manager: current City Community Services/Economic Development Director Stephen Clifton.
Reaction to the proposed change in government structure has been mixed. The Edmonds Chamber of Commerce came out against the measure, stating that “a governance change at this juncture is unwise as it could cause political and economic instability.” The chamber has been encouraging its members to speak out against the proposal at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Councilmember D.J. Wilson, a former political science professor at Edmonds Community College, offered his own analysis of the plan, and concluded that a city manager form of government is “prone to instability” because it gives the Council majority “complete control without any check or balance” from a chief executive also elected by the people.
Several others — including former City Councilmember Dave Orvis — have commented that they don’t see the harm in letting the voters decide the issue. (There is a cost associated with putting any measure on the ballot; in this case it would be about $10,000, which would come out of the council’s contingency fund.)
In an opinion piece that accompanies Tuesday night’s council agenda, Plunkett stated it is his belief that the city manager form of government “is better for our citizens as we strive for an important levy, more responsive to citizens, reduces City expenses, more citizen participation, better management plus a code of ethics for the city manager.”
According to the Seattle-based Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, of Washington’s 281 cities and towns, 227 (81 percent) operate under the mayor-council form, 53 (18 percent) have adopted the council-manager form, and 1 (less than 1 percent) operates under the commission form.
The council-manager form consists of an elected city council that is responsible for making policy, plus a professional city manager — essentially the CEO of the city — who is appointed by the council and is responsible for administration. “The city manager provides policy advice, directs the daily operations of city government, handles personnel functions (including the power to appoint and remove employees) and is responsible for preparing the city budget. Under the council-manager statutes, the city council is prohibited from interfering with the manager’s administration. The city manager, however, is directly accountable to and can be removed by a majority vote of the council at any time,” the MSRC said.
The mayor in council-manager cities is generally selected by the city council, and the person selected must also be a councilmember.