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.

  1. Instability is a very destructive thing. Edmonds has had a Mayor (love them or hate them) since I have lived here (20+ years) and since the founding of the City. We have a Council which currently includes two appointees, both of whom lost recent election bids for the Council. Our Mayor of 10 years just quit. The current Council tried to purchase a property (Skippers) for no real purpose (or if there was a reason, it was never clearly presented) for $1.1 million dollars. They are now talking about presenting a levy. They want an election to see if Edmonds wants a Mayor. That will cost $10,000 to find out. In the interim, it all causes instablility which Edmonds can ill afford.

    By bring the issue of a Mayor vs. City Manager now, the Council is undermining the Mayor they are about to appoint. That is clearly a manuever on the part of the Council. (Perhaps it goes with the faction of the Council that wants a “caretaker” as the Mayoral appointee). Particularly since Mr. Plunkett has already picked his City Manager…?

    Elections matter. There need to be checks and balances. The Council has to deal with a Mayor. If they have a City Manager they pick, and things don’t work out, they just fire them and get another (with Edmonds Tax payers picking up the severence package tab). The City Manager has no obligation to the electorate in Edmonds, just to the City Council.

  2. Diane T. paints a very hopelessly negative picture. The sky will fall if the Council allows their ignorant citizens to have the opportunity to choose a slightly different approach to our local goverment. She fears the vote of the people. She demands that the Council forbid the citizens from deciding this very important issue. She attacks the Council while urging them to ignore the wishes of the citizens and deprive them of a good old American vote on the Council/Manager issue

    Contrary to her harsh assessment I suggest that the following reasons for the Council to properly put the issue on the ballot:

    1. Over 50% of cities our size had adopted Council/Manager. There sre several variations of it. Virtually all cities began with a Mayor/Council form.
    2. It prevents the tug of war beteen the Council and the Mayor that sometimes occurs and has been a constant in the past ten years while draining a whole lot of energy and money.
    3. Former Mayor Haakenson, to his credit now supports Council/Manager.
    4. Council/Manager cities have a reoord of better control of their finances and also much better transparency of same for the citizens.
    5. Blame for problrms cannot be blamed on another such as the Mayor blaming the council and vice-versa. Failures will clearly illiminate the real responsible elected official or officials who will be held accountable at the next election.
    6. Edmonds has a failed financial position. Yes, other cities are tight, yet our situation is comparitively much worse and has been caused by waste and bad decisions. All but one of the Council members is in their first term while the financial crisis has been here far longer. Mauri Moore made it her major issue yet was defeated by our “strong” Mayor who assured all that everything was under control and only a state initative was making things difficult. Its time to try a new approach and to avoid the unnecessary political infighting. Our new inexperienced yet highly qualified Council should have the opportunity to demonstrate without interference our financial recovery.


  3. Wow. I did not know that I am unAmerican, think the people of Edmonds are ignorant, paint a hopeless picture of Edmonds, or that I am demanding the Council take the power of the vote from the citizens. Golly, how negative I must be to want an elected Mayor, a functional City Council, and stability in the the City Government. Of course it is up to the citizens to decide what form of government they want, that is not something the Council can decide.

  4. If you truly believe your last sentence “Of course it is up to the citizens to decide—” then why in the world are you urging them to reject consideration of putting council/Manager on the ballot?

    Are you not perhaps contradicting yourself?

  5. . You have mischaracterized my statements, insulted me, and not read my post. We disagree. Next, I suspect, I will be for skyscrapers on the waterfront, and dislike apple pie. You are entiled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to mischaracterize my opinion.

  6. Ray – good morning.
    Regarding the question of City Manager – there’s a question that comes before “should the citizens decide?”. Obviously, for a question of this magnitude, the citizens MUST decide. I also would have liked a vote on the FD1 deal last year – I think putting things to a vote forces more diligence in presenting a clear case of why a proposal is viable and preferred.
    BUT, I don’t think that we should be spending our time or money on this right now. It’s a matter of strategic planning – a big phrase that means nothing more than making sure that we align our efforts with our priorities, to get the results we desire. This matter not only has little to do with the real problems facing the citizens of the city, but is a divisive, vice a unifying issue.
    I’d rather we focus on local economy issues, transportation issues (esp. for seniors), tourism, and our vision of the future.
    At this point, the City Manager question is a distraction from important issues.

  7. Todd,
    You are right. It certainly can become a divisive issue , if left laying around festering in case the Council kicks it down the road. Such a result will only make Council look indecisive and if certainly won’t win over any of their current detractors. Indeed it will probably increase that number and decrease the probability of a Council/manager success later on.

    Its better to face the issue now head on and be done with it rather than to dither about looking ineffectual. The citizens have or will have enough facts to make a reasoned decision. Time won’t change that much, if at all. And either way, with or without a Mayor, our elected officials will live with the decision of the voters and then get on with the business of first getting us out of the financial hole we’re in.

    Anyway you cut it, we will have a lot to REMEMBER IN NOVEMBER!

  8. Ray – I respectfully disagree. The residents with whom I have spoken are more frustrated that the Council is looking to answer yet another question that no-one asked, while watching our City slowly suffocate economically. I don’t see it as a matter of “face the issue now head on”, but rather, get this off the table and focus on the real problems. We’re not yet up to Nero status, fiddling while Rome burned, but we’re getting there.

    The last thing I want the Council worrying about is whether they look decisive on inconsequential issues. Nobody is up for election this November, so let’s all face forward, prioritize, and attack the hardest problems FIRST, no matter how ugly and difficult the debates will be. This question won’t fester, it’ll disappear beneath real questions of economic life and death.

    Looks like we’ll agree to disagree on this one. But I do understand and respect your perspective. See you Tuesday night.

  9. Ok, here I go again, brace yourself!

    Why not let the public decide this issue?


    by “Stragegic Planning” you mean, “Any issue I don’t want to discuss is not worth discussing.”

    By “little to do with REAL problems”, you mean “this issue has nothing to with problems that I see are important.”

    Again, why not let the public decide?

  10. Thanks, Dave. No need to brace for that – I agree with most of what you said.

    – I concur that the public should decide the question of whether we need a City Manager, when it is time to focus on structure. You don’t hear me arguing that!

    – The people cannot vote on the issue that is my concern: whether this should even be on the Agenda. THAT is the real issue. Session after session of Council time is expended on this, with no plan, no goal, no real reason other than that the question was asked. Sounds familiar….. has this happened before….. ?

    – Look in the mirror. You’re saying that the City Manager question is important, but offer no reason other than opinion. No analysis, no process, no ranking of issues, no surveys. It should just go to a vote, you say. But you fail to say why this is on the Agenda, ahead of economic concerns. That is not a responsible way to govern.

    – When I say “Strategic Planning”, I mean a methodical process to determine where to spend time, energy, and resources. I invite the Council to prioritize their actions based on the results they wish to achieve, and if the City Manager question comes out on top, so be it. That is Strategic Planning, not my opinion. I do planning for a living – the process is not a mystery.

    – The vision and extended agenda of issues before the Council was supposed to be determined during the planning retreat. It wasn’t. I don’t think that the Council is following through on what little they said they would do, and we’re getting another do-nothing year. Focusing on pop-up issues for weeks does not help. Ok, the restaurant styrofoam ban will go through – that’s a good thing. Just not good enough.

    – The Council seems directionless, and having Mr. Plunkett, who is supposed to be the anchor of experience, distract the Council with little thought experiments, while he lashes out angrily in emails to the public about Democrat conspiracies, does not inspire confidence. It’s as if he’s trying to force the Council to fail.

    — again, in case you missed it… I completely agree that the public should decide the structure of the City through a vote.

    But the public has no way to vote on the Agenda of the Council – there is only a vote every two years to register THAT concern. And right now, the public that I meet with, they’re disappointed, confused, and ready to vote out the whole lot, across the board. I believe the Council can correct itself, and I hope they do.

    See you Tuesday.

  11. Yes Ray, there will be a great deal to remember in November. I think our current council is in for a big shake up since they seem to consistently antagonize and perplex the public with decisions such as attempting to purchase Skippers, appointing Lora Petso, flip flopping on a levy, and now having a new found populist desire to put things to an expensive vote with no explanation as to why there needs to be a vote. Just more rhetorical noise and council posturing.

  12. if left laying around festering in case the Council kicks it down the road. Such a result will only make Council look indecisive and if certainly won’t win over any of their current detractors.
    I had a good chuckle on that one..this will make the council look indecisive? Like the flip flop on skippers hasn’t done that? Like Plunkett supporting the idea of a city manager vote, then not supporting, then supporting it? Like appointing 2 folks to council that lost in general elections? How about a city council having a little respect for us citizens? while Bothell creates 600 jobs and $2.2 million in revenue we have a council that skirts the real issues that are effecting this town today..balanced budget, an economic vision instead of throwing up smoke screens so the public just might get sidetracked about what a poor job this council is doing..unfortunately its not working we have had enough….the council says they want to keep the small town charm of Edmonds by not doing anything to bring revenue to this town besides bird watchers..and then change the small town history of this city by throwing out the mayor position that has been here for over 100 years..unreal…what would happen if we had a city manager, these 4 lost their elections next year to 4 developers, and they hired a city manager from Skyscaper Inc..oops there goes our small town about actually doing something council? Like get the waterfront done, get milltown filled, get the old woodway high school site going, stop Lebautens (sic) wharf from falling in the sound,keep businesses from leaving edmonds…just do something constructive please!!

  13. Todd,

    Once again, by “directionless” you mean ” not in the direction I want.”

    There is plenty of energy and time to spend on all the issues.
    None of this process stuff you cited is more important than the public deciding the issue.

    Let the public decide.

  14. Good morning. I’ve noted before the important question of ‘why?’ this issue is before the Council and citizens. Like other conversations on the topic, this string of exchanges really doesn’t present a case for making a change, or for spending the money to hold a vote. Having a City Manager will not remove the tension in town, improve Council performance or resolve many of the problems noted above. A brief read of City Manager stories (dull as they are) shows as many problems as solutions in this form of governance. Proponents owe us a clear and supportable arguement, not opinions and useless data. If this is not possible, then let it die.

  15. I would like to think Michael Young for actually bringing economic development to our community. Yesterday morning, while my 6 year old and I were wondering 5th Ave., waiting for shops to open so that we could shop money locally, we ran into Mr. Young. Mr. Young is opening a new bar in the decaying Milltown!

    Congratulations to you Mr. Young. I am sure this establishment will be as successful as your others. You have done more by opening this one establishment for downtown revitalization than the Council has done in the last two years! Bravo!

  16. Great debate! (C/M = council/Manager)
    Why would the Council vote to put C/M on the ballot? Because we are having a budget crisis far worse than the average city in these troubled times and we need to be seeking the fastest and surest way out of our financial mess. Who is responsible for out plight? The former Mayor and the former Council, that’s who! The only survivor of the former Council is Michael Plunkett, or 1/7 of ½ share of the blame. And now he has presented a positive solution.
    We need a leader who is both an accomplished politician and a financial expert. None of the mayoral candidates measure up to that standard. But such experts are available, especially on the current troubled personnel market.
    The Council will decide Tuesday on one of three options. The worst is (Option 1) to dither and put off making a decision. Some may be selfishly ambitious hoping someday to become mayor themselves while others may fear criticism from the Michael Youngs of the community. I can’t respect this option. Option 2 is to say no to a ballot placement. Critics will remain snapping at their heels regardless of their actions. But, at least they will show some decisiveness. Finally Option 3 will be to put it on the ballot. There will never better timing or a greater need than now, not later.
    C/M has exploded in popularity during the last 20 years. It did not exist in the pioneer days when our city was formed. Over half of cities our size have now adopted it finding it to be a better way to solve problems and provide more efficient local government thereby freeing themselves from the inherent destructive political squabbling of the old fashioned Mayor/Council system.

  17. C/M has exploded in popularity during the last 20 years.

    So has hedge funds, nothing down home buying and Paris Hilton..just because something is popular doesn’t make it right…and according to the above article 81% of WA cities are ran under Mayoral-council format..hardly “exploding” in popularity.

    The city is in this financial mess because of no clear cut vision/plan for any kind of economic development ( it comes “no new building heights!)..when other cities are taking the bull by the horns and creating revenue, attracting new business, increasing local employment..this council continues to create outside noise as to deflect the conversation from “what is your vision for this city”..right now the only thing I am seeing as to vision is city manager, bird watching and more taxes thru a levy..unreal..

  18. Some apparently fail to see the nexus between the City of Edmonds’ systemic economic woes and its basic structure of government. C/M is a far superior form of government for a host of reasons. In my mind the biggest reason to change is…drum roll please… specialization.

    There are city managers out there, both within Washington State and beyond, who are professional city mangers — they are SPECIALISTS in their field. They manage their cities and execute council policy with speed and efficiency. If they don’t, councils fire them and move on. However, replacing an incompetent elected mayor is much more difficult, and it’s hard to find a singular individual who possesses the skill and expertise of a professional city manager within the boundaries of Edmonds. However, a C/M form of government does not preclude a council from selecting an Edmonds resident if they deemed him/her qualified.

    As cities grow and develop, it is increasingly obvious that the mayor/council form of government is becoming hopelessly outdated and obsolete. It was fine back in 1890 when Edmonds was little more than a logging camp, but for a city the size of Edmonds, it’s remarkably backwards. The City of Edmonds is a big business and needs a manager who understands business, finance, and economics. Obviously it still maintains its small-town charm, but seeking small-town solutions in this day and age is a recipe for disaster, and we’ve had a taste of that recipe. Furthermore, a mayor/council government tends to pit citizen against citizen and creates a generally controversial and confrontational relationship between the mayor and council. Making a manager accountable to the council makes the council more accountable to the public and reduces the blaming and finger-pointing that often accompanies a mayor/council form of government. For crying out loud, even Gary Haakenson supports C/M…that should tell you something.

    For those who believe there are more important issues to resolve, I would simply suggest patching the hole in the bucket before trying to find more water. There is a systemic problem in Edmonds that is related to its form of goverment. Just trying to “concentrate on the important issues” is not enough if the system prevents us from achieving the desired results.

    So…why not let the public decide? What are you scared of? The public deciding? It decides every time there’s an election for mayor and council.

  19. Scott..
    excellent post and commentary even though we laid out your agruement and did so rationally and with excellent thought..
    questions most are having is exactly the points that you state are an advantage..the council “hires” the city manager..if you have a council that does not reflect the views of the majority as this do we “trust” them to make the right call when hiring? To go to the the extreme, what if the 4 council members lose next years’ election to 4 “pro development” folks and they in turn hire a city manager that rubber stamps rezoning for skyscrapers? We are just having a tough time w what is perceived as a lack of check and balances in this form of government..also w the preception that this council is frozen like a deer in head lights when discussing important issues for this town..balance budget, economic development, etc…w the costs of hiring/paying/compensating a city manager at this time seems a stretch..I am not “scared”..if they decide to put to a vote I am confident it would not pass, it just seems like a waste of time and money at this time..just like the pursuit of the skippers property..

  20. The public did decide in the last election…Council members Buckshnis and Petso lost. It is concerning that the “cry” for the public deciding ignores the simple fact that not only did the voters say no to two of the current Council members (one of whom I supported), this Council has, in essence, ignored those votes/voters and appointed 2 who lost the elections. (Mr. Orvis….care to comment?)
    Although my points have been mischaracterized, I am very much in favor of the vote. If this debate is elevated to a public vote, I think it will be defeated. I don’ t think it should be on the ballot, it is not convincingly needed at this time. But if it prevails, at least the voters will have been heard. As long as the voters have a choice, I am content with the outcome. Many know more than I, and have been around for a long time.
    The difference between this issue and the others that the Council is considering is that this one MUST by law be put to a vote of the electorate.
    The voters I trust….

  21. Diane, I am confused as to what you want me to comment on. However, like you, I do the trust the voters.

    That’s why I believe the city manager proposal should go to the voters.

  22. I am sick of hearing the mantra “let the voter’s decide”. Those of you chanting that mantra are just having a hard time understanding the difference regarding discussion on the underlying issue versus who should decide.

    If there is a fundamental change in the government, then the voter’s will decide. There is no issue to be discussed there. That issue is MOOT.

    Having said that, I do thank you Scott for providing argument to the subject matter that is clear, concise and factual. Although we may not agree on the issue, I do appreciate your argument.

  23. Mr. Orvis,
    You voted to seat Ms. Buckshnis after she was defeated at the polls. It seems a contradiction for a “put it to the voters” advocate. Or am I missing some point?

  24. Scott,

    Thank you for bringing a well thought out and logical “pro” argument to the table.

    While I agree that there may be merits to the idea, I still don’t see an argument for why we need to do this now. There are many pros and cons, but this is not the time to discuss them.

    As you say, the public speaks every two years in our representative democracy. Please do not fall into the “what are you afraid of” trap like others. That sort off irrelevant statement diverts attention away from the discussion before us.

  25. Diane T.,

    Diane, the only reason your going into Ms. Buckshins is that you don’t want to give the public a choice. Let’s just be honest shall we.

    But since you want to go there…

    Ms. Buckshnis won a primary against Strom Peterson, who clearly outspent her. The public only backed Strom Peterson in the general because he lies about his record on taller buildings. Strom Peterson clearly wants to raise heights on the waterfront.

    Mr. Peterson lost two elections before he was appointed. He couldn’t even get through a primary.
    Then he voted to shut the public out of the land-use appeals before the council. Putting him on the council was a big mistake, the public had to throw out Ron Wambolt to correct his stubborn dedication to reducing public input.

    Back to city manager,
    why shouldn’t the public decide?

    -Dave (the annoying one)

  26. So, the people get to decide except that they are wrong when the pick the wrong person? And the tall buildings again. I do want the people to vote, and I want the votes to be respected. Mr. Peterson won the election. The people did vote, and whether or not you agree, he won. (By the Way, I supported Buckshnis in the primary so don’t type any words in my paragraph please). It seems you only want to respect the vote when you agree with the outcome. But yes, I do believe in the vote and I also believe that votes matter. The people had their say about Mr. Peterson in the election, and he won. That you can’t respect the vote of the people, that is a different issue. And that is about as honest as it gets.

  27. Back to the Mayor v. City Manager….the people are the only ones who ultimately can decide this issue. It is a question solely of why this is coming up now, from a city council and not the voters of the City. What will the City Council’s question to the voters actually cost? What will changing to a City Manager cost the voters? (Legal fees, ordinance changes, restructuring legal fees and all the associated costs) What if you don’t like the result.?

  28. “Back to city manager,
    why shouldn’t the public decide?

    -Dave (the annoying one)”

    Ray, do you have anything to add?

    Let’s hear it. You guys kept beating the let the public decide drum, and then your boy Mr. Plunkett pulled it. Again.

    Spin away.

  29. It should have been left on the agenda to allow a vote, so the record would show which council members were opposed to taking it to the voters.
    By the way, Edmonds actually was run by a non-elected administrator for 94 years. We’ve only had a full-time mayor since 1984.
    Norma Bruns and Rowena Miller both very eloquently spoke to express their well-justified dismay about the issue being dropped from the agenda. We need these two knowledgeable and well-spoken ladies back at more council meetings!
    This council has shown little respect for the agenda right from the first meeting in January when a major item was added at 11:30 at night. Important items have been removed from the agenda when the meeting was running longer than the council president desired, and now the removal of a public hearing at the last moment. Deanna Dawson is needed to keep this kind of stuff from happening.

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