Langley’s new mayor learns on the job

Mayor Kennedy Horstman has identified several areas of improvement for the city of Langley.

Within her first four months of office, Mayor Kennedy Horstman has wasted no time identifying several areas of improvement for the city of Langley.

The challenges pertain from the technical — such as outdated financial management software and an inefficient information technology system — to the practical, like how to better facilitate an unwieldy city council meeting.

But above all else, the biggest obstacle has been the city’s budget. During a council meeting last month, Horstman announced that Langley’s financial situation — in particular, the general fund — is in a precarious state and that an interfund loan might be needed to bridge the gap.

“It’s going to take a lot of time to make the financial situation healthy,” Horstman said Wednesday. “I think that we have improved somewhat in the first quarter because we’re only making mission critical purchases.”

The issues do not come as a surprise to Horstman, who entered office knowing she was coming into an organization with flawed processes that have hindered productivity.

For Horstman, this state of disarray is a comfortable spot because of her experience as a management consultant who worked with other organizations to help them rationalize how to do business.

“This is a whole different level of complexity because it’s government,” she said. “So there are a bunch of additional rules that don’t exist in private enterprise, but I’m learning.”

Her tenure has also been complicated by the lack of a city administrator. In 2023, the city council approved the creation of the new administrative role, which accompanied a major pay cut for the mayor, from an annual salary of $55,000 to $12,000. The idea was for the mayor to take on a more part-time role when a city administrator was hired.

Yet this has not been the case for Horstman, who has been without the assistance of a city administrator for the past three months since Mark Rentfrow’s resignation in January. As a result, she has been working 40 to 50 hours per week with no additional compensation. She has also opted to take on a nearly nonexistent client load in her consulting job.

“Functionally, no, I can’t do both. I’m not independently wealthy,” she said. “I am very interested in being able to hire that administrator role so I can spend more time elsewhere.”

But with the current strain on the budget, that might be a while. Horstman has decided to put off hiring a new city administrator until the city’s finances are in a more comfortable position.

“That’s intentional for me because until I understand where we are financially, I don’t want to take the risk of hiring someone, pushing us over what we can afford and then being in a really awkward position,” she said.

While she acknowledged that it will take time, she remains optimistic that the situation can be fixed if the general fund is spent only on necessities, such as employee payroll and keeping the city hall lights on. She is also spending a significant portion of her time on finding out the extent of the city’s expenses. People tend to think the costs are stationary, she said, but they are constantly changing and understanding what your fund balance is at the moment can be difficult.

“Eventually, we’re going to have some wins,” she said. “Eventually, we’re going to have a budget that we can be proud of.”

When the budget does recover, she has her eye on several improvements that will increase efficiency and productivity for city staff. A replacement for antiquated financial management software is top of the list, as is better IT infrastructure that is more convenient to use and makes collaboration easier, such as the function of a shared calendar system across the city’s different various citizen-led commissions.

Horstman said Langley’s current IT services have complicated the city’s response to public records requests because searching digital records requires separate, distinct manual searches of the city’s shared file storage, file storage of individual workstations and of individual email boxes.

“Manual, independent searching across multiple areas is time consuming and even with the best attention to detail is prone to error,” she said.

During her term, she hopes to modernize the city’s IT architecture to include an enterprise appropriate search tool and the ability to search reliably across all media at once.

A regular day in the life of the Langley mayor can consist of one-on-one meetings with staff or city council members, assembling an agenda for an upcoming meeting, poring over a 100-page survey of the city’s insurance and plenty of quality time with the budget.

Horstman’s office is populated with a standing desk and an enormous whiteboard filled with her extensive to-do list. Her personal effects are sparse and include a portrait of a rabbit, a Christmas bauble featuring Helen Coe, Langley’s first female mayor, and a spare pair of shoes.

“I feel like when I have council meetings, I should wear real shoes,” said Horstman, who usually can be found sporting the sneakers she walks to work in.

Speaking of council meetings, Horstman plans to employ the use of her gavel, a decision she made after the last meeting turned contentious.

“I’m not satisfied with city council meetings, but I think they’re a vast improvement over the way city council meetings were running before I was the mayor,” she said.

She hopes her new approach won’t be too heavy-handed. Horstman has made a conscious effort not to make council meetings her “bully pulpit,” as she put it. She doesn’t like surprises, and when she meets with council members individually, she keeps them informed of what she’s been doing as mayor.

“I’ve been running meetings for years, but I really take it seriously that my job in city council is to be a facilitator and to keep things moving forward,” she said. “I think democracy is about fair and open process.”

Horstman has made it a point to be more organized, with the creation of a spreadsheet tracking the entire year of council meetings. This way, city business, projects with deadlines and guest speakers can be slotted into the agendas beforehand.

Another new feature, the council will sometimes meet for a third time each month for a workshop session. Though it’s not just her own idea, it was something Horstman discussed while campaigning for mayor. She acknowledged that two- to three-hour regular meetings can be brutal, and a workshop offers time to stop, think and discuss without deciding immediately.

“I just think it’s really bad process that you try to make a decision about something the first time it comes up in a meeting,” she said.

One of her favorite parts of being mayor has consisted of recognizing others’ successes. She pointed to a recent appreciation proclamation she issued for Cynthia Tilkin, a longtime Langley businesswoman who recently retired.

“I don’t like to be the center of attention, and I’m shy unless I’m advocating for something,” Horstman said. “And I was a little hesitant, but I’m really glad that I did it.”