Langley council backs away from resolution opposing Prop. 1

LANGLEY — Divided we stand.

The Langley City Council won’t use its bully pulpit in the debate over Proposition 1, the August ballot measure to change the city’s form of government and eliminate the position of an elected mayor.

At its meeting Monday, the council rejected a resolution written by the city’s lawyer that said the council opposes Prop. 1 because it will blow a hole in the city’s budget.

That doesn’t mean council members are all Prop. 1 boosters, however. Every council member except Councilman Robert Gilman said switching to the council-manager model of government was a bad move, for more reasons than one.

Gilman, however, continued his stalwart defense of the changeover.

He said the resolution had caught him by surprise, and he wanted it tabled so people on both sides would have more time to consider Prop. 1.

The rest of the council, however, said it was a fine time to talk.

“There’s nothing to be gained by delay,” said Councilman Hal Seligson.

Gilman then pointed to the “whereas” sections of the resolution, and questioned the accuracy of the statements. He took issue with one section that said the current government was working well.

“There is considerable question ... about how well the current system has been working.”

“There is such a thing as a tipping point,” Gilman added.

That led to the first of repeated interruptions from Mayor Paul Samuelson, who has largely remained silent on Prop. 1, with the mayor pressing Gilman on whether he was talking only for himself.

“There are a lot of questions — for you, correct?” he asked.

“And for many other people,” Gilman replied.

While some have said hiring a city manager would cost Langley more than its current arrangement, Gilman said changing to a council-manager model might mean costs actually go down, rather than up.

“To me, the notion that it would increase costs is simply unsupported speculation,” he said.

And to critics who have pointed out the lack of a hired manager in any other city in Washington that is Langley’s size, Gilman said there were many cities across the country that had a professional manager running city hall. There are 154 council-manager cities that are smaller than Langley, he said.

“It’s not at all unusual on a national basis,” Gilman said.

On the other side

Others on the council, though, pointed out flaws in the council-manager form of government that have been noted many times before.

Seligson said there will no longer be a mayor who could veto legislation that’s contested or controversial.

He also disputed the notion that a city manager would help the city avoid excessive legal costs. Seligson pointed to a recent newspaper article where Mercer Island was fined $90,000 for withholding public records.

“It appears that the city manager screwed up big time and cost the city well over $200,000 to $300,000,” Seligson said, adding that the Mercer Island mayor had praised his manager as “one of the best city managers in the state.”

“The fiction that a professional city manager will shield this city from all sorts of errors and costs is just that — a fiction,” Seligson said.

Adopting the council-manager model, Seligson said, would be moving away from the traditional American system that’s known for its many checks and balances.

Citizens should be able to vote for their mayor, he said. Under the council-manager proposal that’s now on the Primary Election ballot, the city would lose its position of elected mayor, and a ceremonial mayor would be chosen by the council from its ranks.

“My concern is for democracy,” Seligson said, and the community’s ability to choose its own leaders.

“If we don’t like them, we get rid of them,” he said.

Others agreed.

“This is all about the citizens,” said Councilwoman Fran Abel.

She wanted Langley voters to pick the city’s mayor, and not leave it up to three people on the council. It’s not that easy to fire a city manager once someone has been hired, she added.

“This is all about citizens having total control of their elected officials. And if we don’t like the mayor, we vote them out of office,” Abel said.

Residents speak out

“For me, changing the form of government is moving toward a less democratic path,” said David Gignac of Langley.

Gignac said he wasn’t impressed that approximately 150 other cities in the country of Langley’s size had professional city managers.

“That represents three cities per state,” he said.

Most of those at Monday’s meeting who opposed the resolution, and support Prop. 1, were from Edgecliff, the neighborhood that largely forced the measure onto the ballot.

Some Edgecliff residents bemoaned the sometimes caustic debate that Prop. 1 has created in the Village by the Sea.

“It would be so much easier to have this conversation if everybody didn’t think it was a personal thing,” said Rhonda Salerno. “We all love Paul and we love each other, and I think it’s really hard to have it have happened this way.”

Criticism all around

Salerno blamed the Record for any divisiveness in town, and said Prop. 1 was not fueled by anger in her neighborhood with city officials. Many in the neighborhood were bitterly opposed to Langley Passage, a housing project approved by the city earlier this year.

“I was part of the whole Edgecliff thing. I don’t know anyone who is angry or if this had anything to do with that whole thing,” she said.

“I personally was fine.”

She praised Samuelson for being responsive, but said that city staff often defers to the city council on issues she cares about.

Salerno called the resolution “immature” and suggested that council members do more research on the topic, then added that it was “strange” that the council was taking a political stance on Prop. 1.

She also sympathized with the mayor, though that drew a pointed response from hizzoner.

“I think it’s been hard for Paul; he’s had to do both the political, being the good guy on campus, and then, also having to run a staff,” she said. “I don’t think anybody should be required to do that.”

“I think it’s been a big learning curve,” she added.

“I would prefer you not talk for me,” the mayor interrupted.

Salerno then said there was a lack of follow-through at city hall and average people weren’t represented well by Langley officials. She was at the point of considering legal action over something happening with her property, she added, but did not elaborate.

City officials have missed deadlines, and there was a lack of experience in Langley’s leaders, Salerno said.

“Nobody’s really run a city before,” she said, and added that a city manager would take the job seriously.

“I think our government in general needs to be changed. It has to be,” she said, adding that some residents were getting preferential treatment at city hall.

Others pointed to problems with the proposed resolution.

The resolution said the city would face increased costs with hiring a city manager, and warned of potential budget cuts. But Barbara Seitle said that just wasn’t true.

“They’re not based on fact. Nobody has any facts about what the actual cost will be to either support a manager or hire a manager,” Seitle said.

After a lengthy debate, the council decided against approving the resolution. Councilwoman Rene Neff did not vote and did not officially abstain: “I’m on the fence.”

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