Mayor or city manager? Edmonds Civic Roundtable forum explores options for governing

Who is in charge of my city? Is it time to change the way our city government operates? No, this is not an editorial. It is not a letter to the editor. This is the story of some big ideas that a small group of people explored looking at options for governing a city.

Attendees at Monday’s Edmonds Civic Roundtable forum at the Edmonds Waterfront Center.

Fifty people came to the Edmonds Waterfront Center Tuesday for an Edmonds Civic Roundtable forum aimed at explaining different city management systems. The roundtable is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that says its mission is to provide “balanced and objective information” on issues that affect the daily lives of Edmonds residents. So, this group came to listen, not to take action.

Course Guide: Mayor 101

If this were a college course, we could call it “Mayor 101.” Simply put, smaller cities in Washington can either have a strong mayor – weak city council system or, a strong council – city manager system. The terms “strong” and “weak,” according to the non-partisan National League of Cities, are not a “judgment of effectiveness” but show the difference in the levels of political and administrative power a mayor has. Here’s how the National League of Cities defines the two:

 Characteristics of a strong mayor:

  • The mayor is chief executive officer, centralizing executive power.
  • The mayor directs the administration, appointing and removing department heads.
  • The council has legislative power; the mayor has veto power.
  • The council does not oversee daily operations.

Characteristics of a weak mayor:

  • The council is powerful, with both legislative and executive authority.
  • The mayor is not truly the chief executive and has limited power or no veto power.
  • The council can prevent the mayor from effectively supervising city administration.
  • Administrative boards/commissions may operate independently of city government.

Under a weak mayor – strong council system, the council usually hires a city manager to run daily operations.

Edmonds operates on a strong mayor – weak council system. The Civic Roundtable brought in two mayors to share their experiences. Lynnwood’s former mayor, Nicola Smith, operated under the strong mayor system, elected by voters to serve as the city’s CEO. Mountlake Terrace Mayor Kyoko Matsumoto Wright serves in a weak mayor system, where the city manager carries out the policies and goals of the council and manages and coordinates overall operations. Under the Mountlake Terrace system, Matsumoto Wright is selected by councilmembers to be mayor and admits she has a “pretty much ceremonial” role, since the city manager runs operations.

In Lynnwood, Smith consolidated control within the mayor’s office, but said she met every week with the council president and vice president; that it was important to “have the trust and relationship with the council.”

Matsumoto-Wright told the audience that she does not have access to City of Mountlake Terrace staff, but that since the city manager reports to the council, that’s the check and balance for the system. Smith, on the other hand, said she had total control of the city staff and sometimes had to remind councilmembers to “run on their own tracks” and not try to administer the city.

The key question from the audience was this: If Edmonds wanted to change its system and go to a strong council – city manager government, how could you do that?

Under state law, residents would have to approve a change. Matsumoto Wright told the group that Snohomish is the only city in Snohomish County, and one of the few in the state, to take that step. But in an overwhelming bipartisan vote, the 2022 legislature overwhelmingly passed — and the governor signed into law — changes that would streamline the process.

— By Bob Throndsen

  1. As a longtime Edmonds’ resident, I would caution our city against trying to adopt the city manager system. I have heard complaints from people who live under the city manager structure in other places in Washington and apparently it is very, very hard to make the city manager accountable to voters, since the council acts as an insulator between voters and the city manager. It seems that a bad city manager is difficult to fire, especially if the majority of the council members are his or her allies.

    I would rather be able to have direct say on who runs the executive branch of our city government and administers taxpayer funds. Under the city manager system, we would be voting for our council members, and then they would hire whoever they liked as the city manager. It’s a system ripe for manipulation and corruption.

    1. Thanks to the ECR group for hosting this discussion.
      Although I went in thinking the Weak Mayor model could be a consideration, I came away from the Round table discussion with the same opinion as Jenna and Joy, it’s not an option I can support.
      Having a Mayor who is elected and accountable vs. a City Manager who is unelected and not directly accountable to the community only adds a layer of insulation between the community and their elected officials and is not something that we need.

  2. I agree with Jenna. Nothing good coming from a group of people who may not live even close to Edmonds.

  3. Jenna is correct-a City Manager is accountable to the City Council not the public. The Council is the accountable entity.

  4. Left out of this article was the fact that Lynnwood is really a hybrid system with an appointed “city administrator” as well as the elected mayor. The former Lynnwood mayor indicated that her “city administrator” handled the nuts and bolts of running the city, while she put out fires and did all the P.R. work. She indicated that she thought Edmonds needs to hire a “city administrator” to make things work better. In answer to my question, she indicated the combined salary or her position and the administrator position would be in the near 300K range which is in the ball park of what many City Managers make. She also indicated city managers are taught in school to negotiate tough buy out contracts so it is harder and more costly for the Council to fire them. My take away is that it’s pretty hard to get a good municipal government no matter what the system is. Someone called in from Shoreline saying she thought the state law that requires the Strong Mayor to preside over the City Council should be changed because that is a conflict of interest. I agree with that caller. Other people I talked to at the meeting did not agree that it is bad that Mayor’s preside over the meetings. I think the simple change to the Council President running the meetings would be all that’s needed here, but that is not legal at this time.

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