In the layered debate over a possible change of government in Liberty Lake, at least two facts remain clear.
Current Mayor Wendy Van Orman has announced she will not run for re-election in the fall while former Mayor Steve Peterson has already filed his papers as a candidate in hopes of regaining the position he lost to Van Orman on the November 2007 ballot.
Whether Peterson or some other mayoral replacement inherits the existing strong mayor/City Council system, a city manager/ceremonial mayor arrangement or the strong mayor/city administrator structure in place from the incorporation year of 2001 through 2005, remains to be seen.
The City Council is scheduled to vote later this month whether or not to put the option of a city manager form of government on the ballot this fall. The June 21 date for the council vote was put forward by Deputy Mayor David Crump at a special City Council workshop last week.
Crump said the timetable would allow citizens enough room to start their own ballot petition if council members voted against the idea. The city has until Aug. 16 to add the issue to the Nov. 8 ballot at a cost of around $2,500. A citizen petition would require signatures from 10 percent of the city’s registered voters who cast ballots in the last elections – or 163 people.
“I’ve not seen 163 step forward and say they want to change our form of government,” said Council Member Judi Owens at the June 1 meeting.
Owens, one of only original three original members of the City Council along with Van Orman and Crump, has expressed support for a return to the strong mayor/city administrator setup in which a mayor elected by the voters acts as the city’s CEO but is supported in administrative duties by the city administrator. Under the system, the mayor can fire the city administrator, just as Peterson did in 2006, releasing Lewis Griffin.
Peterson, now retired, already has campaign signs dotting the Liberty Lake terrain. He has called the debate over a change in government, “astonishing.”
At the meeting last week, Peterson said the city’s current system has meant “more police protection, our own City Hall and our own library.”
“The past elections have included input from the community,” Peterson said. “The city’s vision is based on quality of life, the environment and economic vitality.”
The city manager system – currently utilized by the city of Spokane Valley – involves an unelected professional administrator running the day-to-day aspects of the city and being accountable to the City Council. While there is a mayor in this form of government, he or she is elected by fellow representatives on the City Council and serves primarily as a figurehead while presiding over council meetings.
Owens said last week that she did not support putting the topic of a potential city manager before voters.
“I don’t support putting this on the ballot,” she said. “If the citizens read all the information on this, I think they would realize we have the right form of government.”
The City Council did vote to put a placeholder in the 2011 budget for a city administrator, although no funding has yet been dedicated. When Peterson announced the elimination of the city administrator position in November 2005, effective at the end of the year, he thanked Griffin for his “integral role in starting the city” but emphasized a streamlining process that would parcel out his duties among the finance director, city development director and police chief.
Owens supported the move at the time, pointing to a crew of “really qualified people” at City Hall.
“We have really strong department heads,” Owens said.
Steve Skipworth, president of the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District board of commissioners and one of several citizens to comment at last week’s meeting, said the city had “things set up well in the first place but just got away from it.”
“Council members are policy makers,” Skipworth said. “I think what is really missing is an administrator who is responsible to the council. What you have here is not broken really bad but there is some fixing that needs to happen.”
Van Orman, who estimates she works “40-plus hours a week” as mayor while earning only $750 per month, has advocated for an elected mayor “who has a stake in the community and represents citizens well” while supporting the hiring of a city administrator “who would be the professional running the city.”
Meanwhile, those on City Council reported varying opinions about a prospective change within the community. Susan Schuler, who has not supported the shift, said most of the residents she has spoken to “are surprised the city is having this discussion” and are expressing concern about the impact on a municipal budget that, just this year, implemented a 6-percent utility tax to make up for lost sales and property tax revenue.
Council Member Cris Kaminskas, on the other hand, said the majority of citizens she has heard from have expressed support for a change at City Hall.
“I guess it depends on the people you talk to,” Kaminskas said.
Resident Ron Ragge, a proponent for the city manager approach, said the system would put the authority with the City Council while turning the administrative responsibilities over to a full-time professional who is required to report directly to the city’s governing board, not the mayor.
“This city can be run a lot better,” Ragge said. “We have a very good council – they should be in charge. I believe a strong city manager is an answer that solves problems.”