A decade ago, the official incorporation of Liberty Lake was just a few weeks away.
These days, Spokane County’s easternmost jurisdiction is in the middle of a debate over what sort of government will be incorporated at City Hall.
After 2010 ended with a series of turbulent budget hearings, the installation of a 6-percent utility tax and controversy over proposed cutbacks at the municipal golf course and library, Liberty Lake residents like Mary Munger and Ron Ragge began to gather support for a transition from the current strong mayor/City Council system to a city manager format in which a municipal CEO would oversee the day-to-day operations of the city and report directly to City Council.
On Monday, the Spokane County Elections Office verified the signatures on a petition circulated by Munger and Ragge over the past several weeks to put the question of government structure on the November ballot. The city will now begin the process of drawing up and passing a resolution to authorize the Spokane County auditor to include the issue as part of the Nov. 8 general election.
“It’s a complex process,” said Munger who provided an update on the petition verification at the City Council meeting on Tuesday night.
Last month, the City Council voted on a proposal to have the city sponsor the ballot issue this fall. Liberty Lake Mayor Wendy Van Orman – who has been supportive of bringing back a city administrator, not hiring a city manager – broke a 3-3 tie, by voting against the initiative. Munger and Ragge began collecting signatures shortly after the June 21 decision.
The petition – which required a minimum of 10 percent of Liberty Lake’s registered voters from the last election, or a total of 202 signatures – emerged with 239 validated names.
Ragge, one of seven pro-city manager supporters to gather signatures, said he was impressed with the general community awareness of municipal happenings as he visited with residents.
“I was amazed at the number of people who were educated about city government,” he said.
Munger said “around 80 percent” of those she talked were aware of the potential transition at City Hall.
“They had read about it in the (Liberty Lake) Splash or the Valley Herald,” she said.
According to Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, the city of Airway Heights was the last local jurisdiction to approve a change in government, voting in 2000 to shift from a strong mayor/City Council system to the city manager configuration. That same year, residents in the Liberty Lake area approved incorporation (officially instituted in August 2001) by a 64-percent margin.
Dalton confirmed last week that a change in government would require a simple majority – or any margin above 50 percent – for approval.
The city was originally organized under the guidelines of a strong mayor/City Council structure with a city administrator in place to help coordinate issues such as the budget and personnel while remaining politically neutral. Lewis Griffin served as Liberty Lake’s first and only city administrator from 2001 until the end of 2005 when then Mayor Steve Peterson announced Griffin’s position would be left vacant beginning in January 2006. No city administrator has been hired since, although the City Council did leave a placeholder in the 2011 general budget for the position.
Peterson, who lost his bid for re-election to Van Orman in November 2007, is a mayoral candidate again this November. He is opposed by City Council Member Josh Beckett who has spoken in support of a city administrator. Peterson has emphasized the city’s successes since incorporation, including the establishment of its own police force and library, while continuing to advocate for the system currently in place.
Munger said she did not discuss the race for mayor while on the petition trail.
“I stayed away from mayoral comments,” she said. “I didn’t take a stance either way.”
The City Council is expected to address a ballot title resolution at its next meeting on Aug. 2.