City government wasn’t working, and the status quo had to go.
Though their destinations were decidedly different, those involved in some of the most recent attempts in Washington state to restructure their city governments say they were after pretty much the same thing.
Accountability, and a city hall that responds to its citizens.
“We went through a real struggle in our community,” said Bill Knobloch, a Bainbridge Island city councilman, as he recalled the city’s move from a mayor-council form of government to the council-manager model in 2009.
“Basically, what it boiled down to was whether or not the government was responding to the needs of the community,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Bainbridge Island is one of a handful of cities across the state that has changed its form of government in the past several years. The topic of a switch has surfaced in Langley, and the League of Women Voters of Whidbey Island still plans to host a community conversation on the topic after last week’s scheduled forum was canceled due to snow, likely in March.
Roughly 80 percent of cities and towns in Washington state have a mayor-council form of government, also called the “strong mayor” model, according to Municipal Research and Services Center. Residents elect a city council to set policy, and a mayor to oversee the day-to-day operations of city hall, and implement what the council has approved.
Knobloch said residents weren’t satisfied with that approach to government, and said there were ongoing perceptions of cronyism at city hall with the mayor and a group of insiders.
“The council, basically, was somewhat helpless if the mayor decided to ignore the council’s mandates,” he said.
Many of the disagreements between the mayor and council, Knobloch said, centered on spending.
Questions swirled around the management of money for a wastewater treatment plant, and there was also concern about the millions of dollars spent on Winslow Tomorrow, a proposed revitalization project, before a single shovelful of dirt was moved.
“It was all on a multitude of consultants, seminars, meetings, God knows what,” he recalled.
A citizens’ petition drive led to the ballot measure, which passed with roughly 70 percent approval in May 2009. A professional manager is in charge of running the city, and the seven-member council chooses one of its own to serve as the ceremonial mayor.
Knobloch said that since the change, there has been a noticeable turnaround at city hall.
“The biggest change is the council is now responsible. We are the ones to be held accountable,” said Knobloch, a former commanding officer of a Navy carrier air-wing squadron who is serving his third term on the council.
That’s led to the end of the blame game in Bainbridge Island government between the council and mayor, he said.
“There was always this finger-pointing, with nobody really taking responsibility,” Knobloch said.
“There’s no longer any finger-pointing as to who is responsible for the bad behavior,” he said. “The council members are responsible, as they have the authority and there is no other place to go.”
But the opposite was actually the case in Federal Way, said Jim Ferrell, a city councilman since 2003 who led the 2009 campaign to have the city change from the council-manager form to the council-mayor model.
The council-manager model is troublesome on several fronts, he said. City hall is run by an unelected bureaucrat who may be insulated from citizens’ concerns.
“A city manager is not elected by the people nor accountable to the public,” Ferrell said.
“It actually moves the people farther way from their government,” he said. “It removes the decision-making apparatus from the direct control of elected representatives. And it keeps the people at an arm’s length.”
The first attempt to get Federal Way to adopt the council-mayor form of government fell to defeat by a slim margin in 2008.
Ferrell recalled how Roy Parke, a local truck driver who had a long-running battle with city hall over a land-use issue, began circulating petitions for another try at the ballot box.
Parke felt he wasn’t getting heard at city hall, and worked tirelessly to get enough signatures to force a second vote. It left Ferrell — a walk-on for the University of Washington football team during the Don James era — impressed.
“I just love that kind of tenacity,” said Ferrell, who works as a senior deputy prosecutor for King County.
Long a supporter of the council-mayor form of government, Ferrell jumped into the 2009 campaign, and brought a friend up from Florida to help run it.
The change was approved in a “squeaker,” Ferrell said, with a 51-percent “yes” vote.
The vote over a change in government in Woodland wasn’t as close.
Tired of constant feuding between the mayor and city council, city council members in Woodland got behind a 2009 ballot measure to change to the council-manager model.
Woodland Mayor Chuck Blum easily recalled his many clashes with the council, some of them following council attempts to direct the work of city staff. There were also early battles over budget cuts, and getting the council to work on goals that had been set earlier.
“They don’t like me. They don’t like me because I make them work,” Blum said. “My attitude is, if you’re going to be a city council member, yeah, it’s a volunteer position, yeah, you got elected to this.”
The job requires some sacrifice, he said.
“You need to roll up your sleeves and go to work,” Blum said. “They want the glory, but they don’t want the responsibility that goes with the job.”
“That’s not true with all of them, don’t get me wrong,” he quickly added. “Some of them are willing to get in and help solve the issues that the city has.”
The attempt to change to a council-manager form was rejected by a 72-percent “no” vote.
“I’m not totally opposed to a council-manager form of government,” Blum said. “A city manager is not a bad form of government. But the problem is you have to have the citizens in the community buy into it.”
“And you need to be able to afford it,” he added. “You’re hiring professional people. You’re hiring people who are going to be expensive.”
The cost of a city manager can easily run upward of $150,000 per year, he said.
“Each community is different. And each community has to find its own way that’s going to work best,” Blum said.
Still, he said, Woodland residents are like many others in Washington state. They want to have a direct say on who becomes mayor.
“There’s a reason why the vast majority of cities throughout the state are strong-mayor forms of government,” he said.