Ex-Shoreline, King County official comments on council-manager idea

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

  1. Regardless of the structure of city government here in Edmonds, the recommendation to implement the use of objective, targeted performance measures is quite timely and appropriate.

    The City already collects reams of performance data for individual reports, but the systems used are not very user-friendly for a citizen with only a short time available to take a look at how the City is doing. On a somewhat parallel path, the Planning Board and Climate Protection Committee are working to identify meaningful metrics that can be tracked, and used to support decision making. Further, this information will be made available, perhaps as a “stoplight chart” showing how we’re doing in the pursuit of objective goals.

    The Planning Board and CPC efforts are focused more on community sustainability indicators, but the mindset, and the methods, should translate well to an operational readiness and performance set of measures for City government. A performance “dashboard”, filled with metrics such as this, by department or function, are the standard in any cross-functional organization of this size. We can do this, and we should.

  2. I agree, firing a city manager is difficult, although I wouldn’t advise handling it as she and her allies did in 2005. On the short end of a 4-3 vote for almost 2 years, they claimed the Shoreline City Council majority on a 0.4% vote margin and claimed a mandate, forcing the city manager out within ~a week and attempting — without public process — to install one of their own as city manager; he had narrowly lost his bid for a council seat in the same election (https://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2002682380_shoreline14m.html?syndication=rss). The subsequent council meeting had a new venue to handle the reported 600 people who wanted to vent. The pick for City Manager was withdrawn, a person acceptable to both sides was found. A lawsuit was filed (https://seattlewebfeat.com/shoreline/lawsuit1.html), and ill will permeated Shoreline’s politics until all of the councilmembers named complicit in the firing were next up for re-election; two, including Ms. Fimia, lost in 2007, the other two in 2009 (a fifth lost in the 2005 cycle). From that standpoint, perhaps the City Administrator model is better. As for what “the public” wants, it’s unfortunately frequently defined as “whatever those who show up at council meetings want,” and by some “if they agree with me.” There’s seldom a meaningful survey of those who do not attend and only an outreach for the top issues. As it is, most voters lack information to make a decision, they rely on their councilmembers to make the call (representative democracy), but some councilmembers seem uncomfortable with the weight of that responsibility. I agree with the rest of her points, especially that it is the electeds’ job to provide oversight and to ask questions, but I’d add that they need to find a happy medium between getting into every detail and bringing progress to a bureaucracy level vs. being a rubber stamp by merely asking token questions.

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