Steve Peterson went 2-0 in the general election on Tuesday, winning his battle for Liberty Lake mayor while citizens voted resoundingly against Proposition 1, an initiative that would have replaced the current strong-mayor system with a city manager.
“The residents sent a clear message that this is the kind of government they want to have,” said Peterson on Wednesday. “This is about getting us back on track and returning confidence in City Hall.”
Early returns had Peterson – who served as Liberty Lake mayor from 2001 through 2007 – defeating mayoral hopeful and current City Council Member Josh Beckett by a count of 74 to 25 percent. Meanwhile, Prop. 1 was failing by a 69-percent margin.
In Liberty Lake’s only contested City Council race, Shane Brickner led Keith Kopelson, 54 to 46 percent. Council Members Susan Schuler and Cris Kaminskas won re-election in uncontested races as did newcomer Dan Dunne, who will replace current Mayor Pro Tem Dave Crump.
Peterson spoke out against the city’s new 6-percent utility tax during last year’s budget process and criticized proposed cuts to the municipal library and golf course. On Wednesday, Peterson expressed hope that “City Hall will be a happier place than it’s been.”
“This is not so much about me being back, this is about our community, our parks, our library and our golf course,” he said.
After the City Council voted 4-3 on June 21 against a city-sponsored rendition of the ballot measure, Prop. 1 supporters Mary Munger and Ron Ragge led a group of fellow Liberty Lake residents in gathering signatures on a petition to put the issue on the November ballot. Advocates needed 10 percent of the city’s registered voters from the last election – or just over 200 names – to move ahead.
On July 18, the Spokane County Elections Office confirmed that the petition contained 239 verified names.
The last jurisdiction in Spokane County to shift its form of government was Airway Heights in 2002. The West Plains city replaced its strong mayor with a city manager. Under the system, the city manager acts as a municipal CEO, reporting directly to City Council. Critics claim that an non-elected leader does not have the same accountability to the public while Munger said the campaign in Liberty Lake was about “having a professional in place to run the day-to-day business of the city.”
Liberty Lake incorporation passed with an emphatic 64-percent margin in 2000. In addition to becoming Spokane County’s easternmost city, the new town was the first in Washington since 1970 to incorporate without a city manager/city council format, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington. Despite the modern city manager trend, the MRSC reports that just under 80 percent of towns and cities in the Evergreen state utilize the strong mayor system.
Both Peterson and Beckett said during the campaign process that they were running against each other and Prop. 1. Beckett supported the concept of bringing back a city administrator while Peterson backed off his original stance opposing the plan, saying earlier this month that he would welcome the idea “as long as the city administrator had a well-defined mission and goal.”
“I’m very collaborative,” Peterson said. “We just need to determine what this person’s responsibility is.”
On Wednesday, Peterson referred back to the early days of the city when outside consultants were brought in to help Liberty Lake form the foundation for its government following incorporation. He added that, as mayor, he would encourage more involvement with groups like the Association of Washington Cities.
“I look at it from the standpoint of education and learning what will improve your city,” Peterson said.
The City Council reached a consensus at its Oct. 4 meeting to set aside $35,000 for an interim government consultant who could help with the transition at City Hall. Beckett has questioned the expenditure while Peterson was more supportive, even pointing to former University Place City Manager Bob Jean as a worthy candidate.
Van Orman said the city has narrowed an original field of 19 consultant candidates to three with final interviews and an announcement expected later this month.
Peterson served as Liberty Lake mayor from 2001 through 2007. He lost to Wendy Van Orman by 61 votes in the November 2007 election and is currently retired but maintains interests in real estate and construction.
While on the campaign trail, Peterson did indicate that he was “only running for strong mayor” and did not have an interest in joining City Council as an eighth representative if Prop. 1 was passed. Jim Doherty, a legal consultant with MRSC, said such a scenario would have “cancelled out” the mayor’s election and created a situation in which Van Orman would have served until Dec. 31 as part of the City Council. The city would have needed to bring on a city manager following the certification of the election later in November.
The complete verbiage, mapping out the sequence of events, is included in state statute 35A-06-030, Doherty noted.
On Wednesday, Peterson arrived at a meeting of the Liberty Lake Kiwanis and was greeted by a standing ovation.
“That was very nice,” said the former and future mayor.