Prop. 1 blasted at town hall
June 11, 2011 · Updated 10:50 AM
LANGLEY — Expensive, unfair and unwanted.
Former mayors and other city officials were united in agreement during a town hall meeting Tuesday on the topic of Proposition 1, the proposal to change Langley’s form of government. The move to the council-manager model, which would eliminate the position of an elected mayor, was a bad idea from start to finish, they said.
The meeting was hosted by opponents of Proposition 1, and featured two Langley officials who will find their roles at city hall dramatically changed if the measure is approved by voters in August.
For Larry Kwarsick, the city’s planning director, it means the job he’s running for will no longer exist.
Kwarsick, the only candidate for the mayor’s race in November, said his opinion wasn’t set by his quest for elected office.
Instead, he said it was easy to see that changing Langley’s system of government wasn’t the bargain some have made it out to be.
“It costs more and it’s cost inefficient,” he said.
It was a wrong step, as well, away from a government that listens.
“It wanders away from basic democratic principals,” Kwarsick said, adding that it seemed like a solution in search of a fix.
“I don’t believe it solves any problems, whatever you think the problems might be,” he said. “I’m not aware of how it would solve any problems.”
Prop. 1 landed on the Primary Election ballot after a group of largely unnamed residents launched a petition drive to force the vote. Most of those who signed the petition live in the city’s Edgecliff neighborhood, which has led many in Langley to believe that the root cause of the suggested switch at city hall was due to anger over the city’s recent approval of the controversial Langley Passage housing project on Edgecliff Drive.
Kwarsick said the timing of the proposal was unfair, and added that the city may have to cut services to be able to afford hiring a city manager if Prop. 1 passes.
“We all know that these are not the best of economic times,” Kwarsick said.
Everyone — families, businesses and government — has had to prioritize. Hiring another supervisor at city hall was an inefficient use of limited funds, he said.
Langley has a small staff, run by four department heads, and it doesn’t need another manager to manage those managers, with the five council members then managing the city manager, Kwarsick said.
“I can’t see how anybody can think that is efficient. I can’t imagine, as an employee, coming to work every day and being managed by five elected officials. I just think that’s totally unworkable,” he said. “They won’t be speaking with a single voice; they will have different directions they want to go.”
“A small group of people will end up controlling the direction of government,” Kwarsick said.
Prop. 1 is “ill-conceived,” Kwarsick added, and he noted that no one has made the case detailing what problems the change will solve, or how it will be paid for.
“We don’t know what it will cost. And we don’t know if we can pay for it. We have no idea,” he said. “We haven’t even started the budget process. Will it result in the decline in other services? We don’t know that.”
Councilman Hal Seligson said city managers work first for the people who provide the paycheck — the city council — and Langley didn’t need a high-paid bureaucrat who would “kowtow” to the council.
Seligson agreed with Kwarsick; a municipal crisis was not fueling the need for change.
“Our form of government is fine. It’s working,” Seligson said. “We’re not in a catastrophe. We’re not going down the tubes financially or in any other way.”
“I want a mayor who is elected by the people, not a manager who is appointed by three people,” Seligson said.
“I want a mayor who is elected by hundreds of you, and reports to you, and is responsible to you,” he told the audience of nearly 50 that had gathered for the town hall at Langley United Methodist Church.
Neil Colburn agreed.
“I like the idea of voting for my own mayor or voting against someone,” he said.
Colburn, who served as a councilman and then mayor from 1989 through 2008, said eliminating the elected mayor’s position would mean less accountability from city government. And he added that voters will be asked to make the switch before they even know who will be sitting on the city council next year; three positions are up for grabs on the November ballot.
“That just makes absolutely zero sense. I can’t say it much plainer than that,” he said.
Langley has had its challenges in the past, but never has the city needed to throw out its model of government to make things right, he said.
“We have survived a lot in this town,” Colburn said. “We had to shift the city council meetings from 6:30 in the evening to 10:30 in the morning to make sure that all the council members were sober. That’s not a joke,” he said as the crowd laughed. “And I mean no disrespect to anybody deceased.”
Langley solves its problems head-on, he said.
“You change the people; you don’t change the form of government,” Colburn said.
Mike Noblet, a former city councilman and mayor in Bothell, a city that uses the council-manager form of government, said he had worked with three city managers during his time in office; the ugly, the bad and the good.
Managers are most concerned about building their resumes, he said, and in Bothell’s case, that led to a manager who wanted to maximize the potential for development so tax revenues would rise.
Disputes were many. Noblet recalled one year when the council had taken August off, then the city manager declared an emergency and contracted for levees to be built in a floodplain that set the stage for more development.
“With no council input,” he added.
Even so, the council still lacked the political will to fire the manager, Noblet recalled, and only got rid of her after she demanded full-time pay for part-time work and the council declined to renew her contract.
Finding a city manager is expensive, as well, Noblet warned.
He said the city should expect to spend $50,000 on the recruitment process, but noted that manager candidates may not be as perfect as they seem during the job interview.
“Then they get on board and maybe there’s some idiosyncrasy. I’m not saying they tweet pictures or anything like that,” Noblet added.
“You’ve got to do it right, then you’ve got a long time if you’ve done it wrong.”
Noblet had simple advice for Langley.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.