UPDATE | Langley to talk about changing government

Langley may find out if residents want the mayor — the position, not the person — to be a fixture in the city’s future next week.

The League of Women Voters of Whidbey Island is hosting a “community conversation” about the form of city government from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 23 in Fellowship Hall at Langley United Methodist Church.

The meeting will include a panel of experts who will give presentations on the mayor-council and council-city manager forms of government. Panelists include Pat Mason, a senior legal consultant for the Municipal Research and Services Center, and Ken Carter, city manager for the city of Carnation.

Barbara Seitle, a league member, said that talk of Langley’s form of government has been “sort of brewing” in the community, and noted the city’s comprehensive plan says a discussion of the council-city manager form of government was merited.

“I think the level of interest is moderate, but it’s definitely there,” Seitle said.

Debate over the mayor’s role in Langley was also heightened late last year, during the controversy over vacation pay for the mayor, and several residents then asked city officials to explore the idea of a switching to the council-manager form of government.

Under the council-manager form of government, cities do not have a mayor elected by the public. Instead, the council chooses a mayor from the ranks of council members. The city’s policies are then implemented by a paid city manager, rather than an elected mayor.

Seitle said the league does not have a position on the proper model of government for Langley, but noted that the mayor’s position will be on the ballot in November.

It makes sense to talk about the topic now, she said.

“It just seemed like as good as time as any to do it,” Seitle said.

“We’re not advocating change at all. We are just exploring all of the options,” she said.

“One of the things that is driving it is the fact that there will be an election coming up ... and if people wanted to have a change, it would have to go on the ballot or the council would have to put it on the ballot, and then it might make a difference in who would decide to run for mayor.

“I’m not suggesting it should, by any means. I think it should all be out in the open before we have an election,” Seitle said.

Most cities in Washington operate under the mayor-council form of government, the model now used in Langley.

According to Municipal Research and Services Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides consultant services to cities and counties, 226 of Washington’s 281 cities and towns — or roughly 80 percent — have a mayor-council form of government. A total of 54 cities and towns, or 19 percent, use the council-manager form.

Larger cities, those with populations between 5,000 to 100,000, are more likely to use the council-manager model. According to Municipal Research, 43 of the 54 cities with council-manager setups fall within that population range.

Carter, the Carnation manager who will sit on the panel at next week’s meeting, has worked in both council-manager and council-mayor forms of government in his more than 35 years in government.

He said a main difference between the two is where the authority rests for the city’s top executive.

In council-mayor forms, also called the “strong mayor” model, the mayor has executive authority that is separate from the council.

“The manager has all authority in terms of preparing the budget, appointments of department heads, staff and employees,” Carter said.

In Carnation, the council appoints one of its own to serve as mayor for two years at a time. The mayor still serves as a council member and votes on matters before the council, but also serves as a ceremonial head of the city.

Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson said the city’s existing form of government has worked well throughout the town’s history.

“I’m not sure what’s motivating the conversation. I’m not sure what needs to be fixed or what’s broken,” Samuelson said.

“I think it’s worked well for the city. I think it continues to work well for the city,” he said, adding that a move to the council-manager form would spell the end to the checks-and-balances that exist between an elected executive and the legislative branch.

“I think that tension between the two branches works well and has worked well for almost 100 years,” Samuelson said.

Former Mayor Neil Colburn was also skeptical of a switch.

Colburn noted that he supported changing Langley’s form of government when he was a councilman, but the move to adopt the council-manager model never gained traction with the public when it was pursued in the early 1990s.

“I ran the whole pro council-manager [campaign] from pretty much my wallet,” Colburn recalled.

“I wanted to do it because I was worried about honesty at city hall. And also, quite frankly, from a city council person’s perspective — a council-manager form of government is the bee’s knees,” Colburn said.

The power of the executive branch would be assumed by the city council, and the council also controls the person picked for the manager’s job, he said.

“I don’t think it works very well,” he said. “You have no checks and balances.”

“It’s not a partisan issue,” he added. “I just don’t think it’s a good model of democratic governance.”

Samuelson said it was the community’s decision on the form of government they want, but added that the timing of the election would raise questions.

Would the election be held at the same time as a mayor’s race in November, or would the election on changing government be held earlier, he asked.

Samuelson said he hadn’t planned on making a decision to seek reelection until April or May.

“I’m obviously going to sit back and see where the community is on this,” he said.

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