For three years and two elections, Federal Way voters debated their form of government.
Should it remain a council-manager format or switch to a mayor-council format? The primary difference in the two is whether the chief executive officer who heads City Hall is a professionally trained city manager or a popularly elected mayor. The citizens voted to make the change, and over time, we will evaluate the results of that decision.
Recently, some residents testified at a city council meeting that term limits should be imposed on council members.
But we are not alone in the discourse of what our government should look like as similar discussions have been repeated throughout the state. Some discussions, which mirror the national debate of the basic role of government, have been fueled by the Tea Party movement. Other discussions have more local political issues at their genesis.
Over in Yakima, the longtime city manager decided to retire. During the discussion of how to fill the anticipated vacancy, a group of citizens mobilized to change the form of government to one with a strong mayor.
Much like Federal Way, the debate revolved around personalities, power and accusations of respective motivations. Yakima voters decided to leave the city manager form in place. But at 52 percent to 48 percent, the result was close enough that it will likely come up again. However, just to ensure that stability doesn’t fully return too soon, some are now considering whether the current combination of at-large and district city council seats should be changed in some manner — either to all small city districts or all at-large seats, meaning a citywide vote.
Bonney Lake, which has five council members elected by wards and two elected at-large, recently began to consider the same issue. The city council seems likely to place on the fall ballot a proposition to switch all council seats to at-large and let the voters decide.
Up in Langley on Whidbey Island, citizens have had a strong mayor form of government for several years. Last year, there was some controversy regarding the incumbent mayor and vacation. That brought questions from some residents who wanted the city to consider switching to a city manager system. The League of Women Voters is hosting a workshop with expert panelists to discuss the merits of both options. Since the mayor is also up for election this year, things in Langley may be a little less like Mayberry and a little more like Chicago.
Why all this sudden interest in changing governmental forms?
First of all, it isn’t sudden. It has been going on for decades, and is the natural evolution of the public’s right to question and debate the government and the elected officials who serve them. Either through scandal or local political disagreement, many cities have changed their form of government. Some have even changed it back again.
While this creates a level of uncertainty in the government and has an effect on the employees who provide service, the debate itself is healthy.
What is dangerous is to use the form of government debate as a stalking horse for gaining power or trying to get rid of personalities that someone doesn’t like. Changes in the form of government should be thoughtful and deliberative and should seek to improve the manner in which services are objectively delivered. Changing personalities, or not, are better left to the candidate election process.
We’ll check on these cities later in the year to see how they have decided to handle their issues.