As voters in Liberty Lake look ahead to a possible transition in the structure at City Hall this autumn, citizens of two other Washington cities have already cast their ballots to determine their respective approaches to government.
While the November general election in Spokane County will feature the usual array of city council, school board and mayoral races, Liberty Lake residents will decide whether or not to convert from a current strong mayor/city council system to a city manager/city council configuration. If the vote passes, Liberty Lake would become the first jurisdiction in Spokane County since Airway Heights in 2002 (strong mayor to city manager) to modify its governance structure.
According to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, a total of 17 cities have incorporated in the state since 1970. Of those, Liberty Lake is the only municipality to declare cityhood under the auspices of a strong mayor/city council design – the rest, including the city of Spokane Valley in 2003, have incorporated using the city manager/city council system.
“I think it was the right call,” said Mike DeVleming, who served as Spokane Valley’s inaugural mayor. “It gave our City Council a better ability to pick a city manager.”
Under Spokane Valley’s format, the city manager acts as the municipal CEO, overseeing the day-to-day business of the city and reporting directly to the City Council. The mayor in this scenario acts in more of a non-elected, ceremonial role while carrying the same voting leverage as other members of the City Council.
The strong mayor arrangement provides a greater degree of authority for an elected mayor who organizes the annual budget and other vital concerns of the city. Here, the mayor is considered separate from the City Council, though he or she can cast the deciding vote in the case of a tie.
In Liberty Lake, the position of city administrator was part of the municipal hierarchy until 2006 when then Mayor Steve Peterson announced the job was being eliminated as part of a streamlining process that would turn more responsibility over to administrative leads in departments such as finance, community development and law enforcement. The city administrator position has sat vacant ever since.
The 2011 budget does include a placeholder for a city administrator, although no money has been set aside yet.
Supporters of the city manager system in Liberty Lake point to safeguards that would protect against a mayor firing a city administrator such as Peterson did. A majority vote by the City Council is required for the release of a city manager, a scenario that occurred in January 2010 when the Spokane Valley City Council (the majority of which had been elected the previous November) abruptly voted to part ways with inaugural City Manager Dave Mercier.
The MRSC reports that eight Washington cities have transitioned from a city manager/city council structure to strong mayor/city council approach, including the city of Spokane in 2001. Federal Way, which incorporated with a city manager format in 1990, was the latest to convert to a strong mayor, in 2009.
Meanwhile, more than double (17) have gone from strong mayor to city manager, including Bothell, Ferndale, Port Townsend and Snohomish.
Despite the trend, the strong mayor format is still the most utilized governance system in Washington, with roughly 80 percent of cities functioning under its bylaws.
In Langley, a small town of just over 1,000 residents on the southern edge of Whidbey Island, voters resoundingly opposed the switch from strong mayor to city manager earlier this month. Over 76 percent of ballots cast in the Aug. 16 primary election supported retaining the current system in place since the city incorporated in 1913.
As in Liberty Lake, a citizen-based petition launched by city manager advocates put the question to ballot in Langley. Supporters of the change brought up the need for professional guidance at City Hall while opponents argued that an elected mayor is more accountable to the citizens than a city manager and scrapping the blueprint would hamper the system of checks and balances between the mayor and City Council. Cost was also considered a factor – while the mayor of Langley earns $53,000 a year, a city manager salary was anticipated to be in the range of $100,000.
Earlier this year in Yakima, voters narrowly opted to keep their city manager/City Council structure by a margin to 52 to 49 percent. Those campaigning for a strong mayor city argued that while a mayor is required to run for re-election every four years, a city manager lacks direct accountability to the people. Yakima City Manager Richard Zais has now been the lead person at City Hall for nearly 30 years.
City manager supporters countered that the current administrative chart limits the impact of politics on the business of running a city and maintained that Zais is held responsible by the City Council.
Airway Heights Council Member Matthew Pederson recalls the shift from strong mayor to city manager leadership in the West Plains town requiring a fairly extensive overhaul of municipal codes and policies.
“It certainly involves legal fees and staff time,” Pederson said. “It’s not just an automatic transition.”
Pederson expressed surprise that Liberty Lake had moved to put the governance change on the ballot and emphasized “that effective leadership is more about personalities than the system.”
“I thought Liberty Lake had done well with the strong mayor,” he said.
DeVleming echoed Pederson’s comments, stressing that while questions over the best forms of government may often be raised, the most important issue ultimately has to do with the quality and consistency of the leadership itself.
“Both systems can work if you have the right people in place,” he said. “You can blame the system if you want, but it’s about the people running the city.