The campaign to change the system of government in Liberty Lake suffered a temporary setback on Tuesday night as a narrow City Council vote determined that the city would not sponsor a November ballot initiative to put the question of installing a city manager before voters.
Mayor Wendy Van Orman broke a 3-3 council tie by voting against the proposal. Council Members Josh Beckett, Cris Kaminskas and Odin Langford had supported the measure while colleagues Judi Owens, Mayor Pro-Tem David Crump and Susan Schuler checked in with “nay” votes. Council Member Ryan Romney had an excused absence from the June 21 meeting.
Liberty Lake was incorporated in August 2001 under a strong mayor/city administrator form of government. That structure stood in place until 2005 when then Mayor Steve Peterson released inaugural City Administrator Lewis Griffin. Proponents of the city manager system like Liberty Lake resident Ron Ragge said the change would put more authority with the City Council, provide necessary checks and balances and prevent a mayor from firing staff without the approval of the City Council.
“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.”
Council Member Judi Owens, one of the three remaining members of the city’s original governing board with Van Orman and Crump, disagreed.
“In my personal opinion, I believe this would be a mistake for the city,” she said.
In a city manager system – such as the one utilized by the city of Spokane Valley – the city manager acts as the full-time municipal CEO but is accountable to the City Council. The mayor in this form of government is part of the City Council and acts in a more ceremonial role
Like others in Tuesday night’s majority, Owens acknowledged that citizens could take the prerogative and gather the necessary signatures to put the issue on the Nov. 8 ballot. According to city manager advocate Mary Munger, who addressed the council during public comments, a valid petition would need just over 200 signatures from registered voters in Liberty Lake going back to the last election.
Ragge indicated that a petition had already been circulating in Liberty Lake prior to Tuesday’s meeting. He said the campaign has over a dozen volunteers who will be gathering signatures over the next few weeks.
Crump, who along with Van Orman and Owens will not be running for re-election this fall, said response to the petition would serve as a community barometer.
“I think there’s still a question as to whether or not this is a couple of citizens involved in this or if it’s a larger public issue,” Crump said.
In formulating the 2011 budget, the City Council did approve a placeholder for a city administrator position, although no funds have been allotted for the role as of yet. For his part, Peterson – who is running against Beckett for mayor – has expressed opposition to both a city manager and city administrator system. At a City Council meeting on June 1, Peterson emphasized that Liberty Lake’s current system of government has meant “more police protection, our own City Hall and our own library.”
Munger shed some light on several questions connected to the ballot initiative, including the cost of adding the question to the fall election. Initially, the city had reported a fee of between $2,000 to $2,500, although Munger said on Tuesday that the Spokane County Elections Office had quoted her a price of $400, plus another $200 for signature verification.
While Aug. 16 has been mentioned as the deadline for ballot additions, Munger said that ideally the petition would be turned into the elections office by early July in order for the proper paperwork to be completed by the city.
“As the city changes and becomes more complex, I think we need a professional who can run it,” Munger said.