Choosing a government, again

Published on Thu, Sep 13, 2001
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Choosing a government, again

The last time Blaine voters were asked to change the way the city is governed, the proposal failed. In November 1999, 67percent of Blaine voters said no to having an elected mayor run the city and opted to stay with a city manager at the helm.

Next week, they’ll be asked that question again. Proposition 2 on the September 18 ballot asks if the city should abandon the council-manager form of government and adopt a mayor-council plan.

If voters say yes, they will be bucking a national and statewide trend towards a professional city executive, but they will also be following the lead of neighboring communities, most of which have elected mayors. Ferndale, which gave up an elected mayor with Blaine in the late 1980s, returned to that form of government in 1998.

“The transition is still not complete,” said Ferndale mayor Carolyn Jensen. “It was a little rocky at first. It was a lot of work and it can be very taxing. I think the citizens are happy and have a more responsive government now.”

Nationwide, more than half of cities have the council/manager system, according to the Municipal Yearbook, and that percentage is growing. A study in the late 90s found that only 20 percent of the referenda to abandon the council-manager form were successful.

Across the state, most cities still have mayors but the trend is towards professional managers. Only 18 percent of Washington cities have city managers, but those include all the newly incorporated cities since the 1970s and a growing list of defectors from the elected mayor system. Since 1970, 31 cities have either incorporated under the council-manager plan or switched to it from the mayor or commission form. Only five have gone the other way, abandoning the council-manager form.

In Spokane, which was the most recent state city to vote out the council-manager form and elect a mayor, city representative Greg Sweeney said voters wanted more accountability in the city executive. “I think it was frustration,” he said. “It seems to me the elected official at the top is likely to be more accessible.” With a population of almost 200,000 Spokane has a full-time mayor, who took office in January, and a city administrator
In Fife, a city a bit larger than Blaine, where voters recently opted to give up a mayor for a city-manager, accessibility and accountability were also the issues. City council member Mardene Patton said a city manager gave Fife more of both. “ You can get at him more on a regular basis,” she said. “There’s more control for the people. An elected mayor has too much control and if the community isn’t awake things can run rampant.” Neither Sweeney or Patton felt there was a long-term cost difference between the two forms of government.

Byron Katsuyama, policy analyst for the Municipal Research and Service Center, said many changes in form of government have little to do with what works best. “They don’t usually revolve around debates on the relative merit of the two forms. They tend to revolve around events and personalities. You might end up changing your form of government to deal with a group or an individual,” he said.

Cities with populations under 1,000 are unlikely to have a professional manager because of the cost, Katsuyama said, but cities over 2,500 can afford, and often need, professional management. Most cities over 2,500 with elected mayors also hire city administrators. “The primary reason is the belief that having a professional manager is needed,” he said. “If you’re considering the best way to select a CEO, you can do so politically, and they may or may not have those qualifications, or you can hire someone based on their qualifications.”

Katsuyama said once a city administrator is added into the mix, there is little cost difference between the two systems. In cities with populations from 2,500 to 7,500, the average salary for city managers or administrators is $71,300. City administrators working with an elected mayor earned both the lowest and the highest salaries in the 35 cities in this range.

Should the ballot measure pass, mayoral candidates will line up for the November general election along with city council candidates. However, due to newly-adopted legislation sponsored by Senator Georgia Gardner, the entire council will not need to be replaced. The bill, effective this July, provides for all incumbent city council members to serve out the remainder of their terms. Supporters of the council/manager sytem would not be able to bring back a proposition to return to that form of government for six years.

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