A month before voters in Liberty Lake elected former Mayor Steve Peterson back into office and balked at an initiative to replace the strong mayor with a city manager, the City Council voted to hire a consultant who would be assigned the task bringing Spokane County’s easternmost jurisdiction in for a safe landing.
At the Oct 4 council meeting, representatives of the governing board approved a salary of $35,000 for the advisor’s role, spanning a minimum of two months. At the time, the city was gearing up for a general election that included a race for mayor between Peterson and Council Member Josh Beckett as well as a ballot measure that proposed a change from the current strong mayor/city council structure to a full-time, non-elected city manager who would report directly to the City Council.
By the time the ballots were counted from the Nov. 8 election, Peterson had won in a 74-percent landslide while Proposition 1 was defeated in a 70-percent rout.
While the process of hiring a city consultant began in early October with the agreement on a salary and the formation of a committee comprised of city leaders and citizens, the actual announcement of Mike Cecka occurred at the Nov. 15 council meeting. A total of 18 candidates had filed applications, but Cecka, a former city administrator in Cle Elum and Leavenworth, was chosen from a group of three finalists.
“We narrowed it down to three candidates and two couldn’t start until January,” said Wendy Van Orman when the appointment became official. “Mike also brings a knowledge of Washington state law.”
Cecka visited Liberty Lake on Nov. 18, meeting with Van Orman, Peterson and municipal employees at City Hall. His first official day was Nov. 26.
“I’ve been quite impressed with the community and the level of involvement of elected officials,” Cecka said.
Semi-retired since 2003, Cecka is part of the roster at Prothman, a Seattle-based governmental consulting firm that specializes in administrative searches and interim support for new and transitioning cities across the region. In the months following incorporation of Spokane Valley, Prothman provided the provisional groundwork for the fledgling city in positions such as city manager and finance director.
Cecka has occupied a slightly different role during his first month in Liberty Lake, addressing several priorities as outlined by city officials beginning with the changeover at mayor. Peterson said the veteran administrator has brought “a fair and balanced perspective” to his responsibilities thus far.
“Mike is real knowledgeable about how government works,” said Peterson, who served as mayor from 2001 to 2006 before losing to Van Orman in the November 2006 general election. “He is very detail-oriented and pragmatic. I have been emphasizing that we need to make this about the issues and not the personalities and Mike understands that.”
Cecka has also been working with Peterson on the question of hiring a city administrator.
Cecka’s salary for 2012 will be extracted from the funds set aside for a future city administrator – until a permanent employee is found. The City Council has approved $160,000 for the position in 2012, although Peterson will have the final say on bringing back an administrative role that has been missing from City Hall for nearly seven years.
Liberty Lake hired Lewis Griffin to be its first city administrator following the passage of incorporation in November 2000. Griffin served until the end of 2005 when Peterson announced the position would be eliminated with responsibilities being dispersed among various department directors. There has been no city administrator in place since that time.
“I believe in what a city administrator can do for cities,” Cecka said.
Cecka has also been working on issues involving council rules and procedures as well as reviewing the city’s financial policies and salary structure for staff. At its meeting on Dec. 13, the City Council voted to put a freeze on merit step pay increases for municipal employees. Cecka said compensation in Liberty Lake is “a mixed bag” – lower, higher and commensurate with Washington averages, depending on the role.
In evaluating council procedures, Cecka is looking at the possibility of “adding more guidelines” to meetings at City Hall, including the current policy on public comments.
“Right now, you have comments before and at the end of each meeting along with comments before each vote,” he said. “I think these meetings could move forward more efficiently.”
Cecka said he has been impressed with the dialogue between council representatives throughout the first two meetings he has attended. Both gatherings went nearly four hours each and dealt with complex issues such as the general budget, utility tax and staff salaries.
“There has been good deliberation,” he said. “Each person on council brings a perspective to the meeting.”