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Langley City Council removes councilman from leadership role

Langley City Councilman Robert Gilman talks to his fellow council members at Monday’s meeting after his colleagues suggested he should be removed from his post as mayor pro tem. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Langley City Councilman Robert Gilman talks to his fellow council members at Monday’s meeting after his colleagues suggested he should be removed from his post as mayor pro tem.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

LANGLEY — In a surprising political face slap, the city council voted Monday to strip Councilman Robert Gilman of his post as mayor pro tem for Langley.

Council members said Gilman’s support of the move to change Langley’s system of government and get rid of its elected mayor, and his earlier comments that current Mayor Paul Samuelson wasn’t up to the job, meant it was time for someone else to work with the administration.

The rare reprimand was followed by another rebuke: Council members said they wanted to change the city’s comprehensive plan to remove a series of policies long-championed by Gilman that dictate growth and zoning in Langley.

The public dressing-down was remarkable for a council long criticized for its chumminess and like-mindedness, but it came quickly and without hesitation. In one motion, council members removed Gilman from the position he has held during two administrations, and gave the deputy mayor job to Councilman Bob Waterman, a short-timer who leaves the council at the end of his term in December.

At Monday’s meeting, it was one of the council’s newest members who asked for the demotion of the council’s most veteran member, and certainly its most influential.

Councilwoman Fran Abel called it “an extraordinarily difficult issue” to bring up, adding: “Open debate is needed in the name of good governance.”

“Although I admire Councilman Gilman’s knowledge of city government, greatly admire it, it is my opinion that he is no longer acting in the best interests of the council, this administration, or this city,” Abel said.

“Our trust has been eroded,” she said.

Top position

The mayor pro tem is the council member elected by his or her peers to step in and help run city hall when the mayor is away or incapacitated. In most cities, the mayor pro tem also helps set the council’s agenda and direction, keeps the council on task and represents the council and city when needed.

Gilman has served as mayor pro tem for most of his seven years on the council, and has been the council’s resident expert on everything from long-range land-use planning to more recently, municipal revenue tracking.

Council members said that discontent with Gilman and his friction with the mayor’s office had weakened the council’s confidence in Gilman’s ability to serve.

Abel cited state law, and said the council could pick a new mayor pro tem any time it wanted, and the ensuing discussion then centered on other reasons why Gilman should be given the gate, sprinkled with kind regrets.

Blunt assessment

From Councilwoman Rene Neff, however, there were no niceties. She recalled Gilman’s recent comments when he questioned the competence of the current mayor. And then there was Proposition 1, she said.

“I also feel like this whole issue with the different form of government — the way that this has all played out — has really eroded my confidence as well,” Neff said.

Gilman’s removal was not only remarkable, but rare in the context of Langley’s history. No one at city hall Monday could recall a mayor pro tem being removed in the past 20 years or so, or even if it had ever been done prematurely in the past.

Council members said it was a hard thing to do for other reasons.

“This is a very difficult thing to do in an open meeting,” Waterman said. “It’s not easy.”

“As you know, I really value your abilities,” Waterman told Gilman.

There’s been a split, he noted, between Gilman and the mayor, and that’s been a troubling development.

“I felt a little bit uneasy over the last month or so with the obvious disagreement or problems ... that have been evidenced with the mayor,” Waterman said.

Waterman did not elaborate, but Gilman and the mayor have exchanged memos and e-mails in recent weeks, with Samuelson telling Gilman in one late April memo that he has been “interfering with the duties of the mayor’s office and the administrative staff” and causing “strained relationships” at city hall.

Prop. 1 fallout

Waterman also brought up Prop. 1, the proposal on the August primary ballot in which voters will be asked if they want to abandon Langley’s current model of government and adopt the council-manager model, one where voters don’t choose their mayor and city hall is run by a hired gun.

Only 70-odd signatures were needed on petitions to force the vote, but some have criticized Gilman for joining in the drive to change Langley’s longstanding form of government and helping to get the measure on the ballot.

The petition wasn’t wrong or illegal, Waterman said, but the timing was certainly bad.

“I think the timing was terrible and I think it was just done inappropriately. So I think I would have to agree, in terms of a representative of the council, and the mayor to the community, that I think perhaps this is not the best time for you to serve in that position,” Waterman told Gilman.

“It pains me to say that,” he said.

Gilman downplayed the position he was being asked to vacate, but said he was willing to finish out his two-year term if his fellow council members no longer wanted him as mayor pro tem.

“I certainly agree that if a majority of the council are feeling that they are not comfortable with me in the role of mayor pro tem, then fine,” Gilman said.

“I don’t need to continue in this role. And I would be happy to do the normal rhythm of finishing out the biennial cycle,” he said.

Finding no takers, Gilman offered to go along with the switch.

“I’m not sure that I agree with all of your characterizations, but clearly there’s some policy differences that we have,” Gilman told his fellow council members. “If that’s the way policy differences play out, that’s fine with me.”

Gilman minimized the importance of the deputy mayor job, and stressed that he wouldn’t fight to keep it.

He said the “practical consequences” of the job have meant that he’s signed parade permits twice while Samuelson has been out of town.

“Whoever winds up being mayor pro tem, I want to assure you, that it is actually not a terribly burdensome role,” Gilman said.

“It’s one of those things that, hey, I’m easy. If you want to shift it around, I’m fine to shift it around,” he added. “It’s not something that I’m feeling any need to hold onto.”

Council members then voted 5-0 to change the mayor pro tem, with Waterman taking over as mayor pro tem.

Waterman and Gilman then rose, collected their council binders, notebooks and name plates, and changed seats — with Waterman sitting at the mayor’s right hand, and Gilman moving to Waterman’s old seat on the other side of the room.

Policies at risk

The council then shifted to a discussion on concerns over the city’s comprehensive plan, and it quickly became apparent the target was Gilman’s legacy policies in the comp plan — a set of controversial proposals covering subarea zoning, a transfer-of-development rights program and a land-use budgeting system — that the city has spent years fleshing out, but are still incomplete.

Neff said she wanted the city’s planning staff to review the comp plan, the city’s 20-year plan for guiding growth, to see if that series of Gilman-pushed policies is legal and consistent with state law.

She said the policies are just too expensive for a small town like Langley to use.

“We have a small staff, and I think the financial drain on our budget to administer them might be fairly large,” she said.

Neff said the policies are too complex and hard to understand, even though she sat through multiple briefings on them.

“I’m still not quite sure how it works,” she said.

If city officials have a hard time grasping the concepts, the public will too, and city staff will be left to implement the ineffective and unwanted proposals, she said.

Neff then asked for a staff review of the policies that would detail the burden they would place on staff time and the city’s budget.

Though Waterman said he liked the policies promoted by Gilman at the intellectual level, he said they were “unnecessarily complex” for Langley.

“I think it would only work if the city was perhaps larger or at least the whole community was behind this,” Waterman said.

“You have to have a tremendous community effort to make this work,” he said.

With majority support on the council lining up for the staff review, Gilman again conceded defeat.

“It’s one of those things; if there isn’t the support in the community for it, so be it,” Gilman said.

“With all of these things, I’m having people in other communities who are very interested in doing these things,” he added. “If Langley doesn’t want to, that’s the way the process works. I don’t have a problem with it.”

Some time coming

The idea to remove Gilman from the council’s top spot has apparently been brewing for weeks.

Abel said she had talked to Gilman earlier, and last week asked for the item to be added to the council’s agenda. She waved off a reporter at the time, declining to talk about where she wanted the discussion to go on the issue of the mayor pro tem position.

The move to cut Gilman’s policies out of the comp plan was more of a shock, however, as the item had not been listed on the agenda for Monday’s meeting.

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