A proposal for change

By Michael Plunkett | Apr 08, 2010
Recently the Edmonds City Council passed a campaign reform measure about how we elect our local officials.

Today, I’m proposing a government reform measure.  After 12 years on the Edmonds City Council I have come to the conclusion that we need to enact a major reform and create a council-manager form of government as soon as possible. 

The council-manager form is a system of local government that combines strong and accountable elected leadership with professional managerial expertise.

The council-manager form of government better assures that ordinary citizens can shape and influence policy through the city council and that policy will be carried out by a professional city manager.

Edmonds will still have a mayor who would be elected by the council from among the council members. The mayor would continue to preside at council meetings, serve as a spokesperson for the community, facilitate communication and understanding between elected and appointed officials, assist the council in setting goals, advocate policy and serve as a promoter and defender of the community.

However, a professional manager would administer the day-to-day running of the City of Edmonds. There would be a transition. If the people voted in a council-manager government the present mayor would then become an eighth city councilmember for the remainder of his term.

For consistency, I would vote to leave Mayor Haakenson as the mayor under the new council-manager form for the remained of his term.

I believe a city-manager form of government is better as we strive to be more responsive to citizens, reduce city expenses, and encourage citizen participation.

Born out of the turn-of-the-century reform movement, the council-manager system of local government started in Staunton, Virginia in 1908.  Since its establishment, the council-manager form has become the most popular form of government in the United States. 

For more than 85 years, council-manager governments have responded to the changing needs of citizens and their communities.

Currently, 3,625 cities operate under this form. They vary greatly in size and characteristics, including independent cities, center cities, suburbs, and counties. More than 75.5 million people are within this form of government.

Out of 199 cities with greater than 100,000 citizens, 112 use this form of government. Some examples are Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas, Cincinnati, San Antonio, Kansas City, Missouri, and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

An important reason for creating a council-manager form of government is the idea that major changes and challenges are coming to local government. Therefore, we owe it to the people of Edmonds to provide a professional city manager that has the experience to navigate those changes.

The manager is hired to serve the council and the community and to bring to local government the benefits of training and experience in administering local government projects and programs on behalf of the governing body. The manager prepares a budget for the council’s consideration; recruits, hires, and supervises the staff; serves as the council chief adviser; and carries out the council’s policies.

Council members and citizens count on the manager to provide complete and objective information, pros and cons of alternatives, and long-term consequences.

Most of the business of a city is just that, business. Whether it is keeping traffic signals operating, police cars maintained, employees productive or just paying the bills on time. It is the nuts and bolts of city operation that is done best with a non-partisan, politically neutral city manager professional.

This kind of management is why the council-manager government is also more responsive to citizens.

This is because council members are elected to be leaders to focus on policy issues that are responsive to citizens’ needs and wishes. This leaves a city manager, appointed by council, free to carry out and manage policy. If the manager is not responsive to the citizen’s wishes as manifested in council policy, the manager can be terminated. 

In that sense, a manager’s responsiveness and performance is tested daily. The council focuses on the community’s goals, major projects, and such long-term considerations as community public safety, land use, capital improvement plans, financing, and strategic planning.

The council hires a professional manager to carry out the administrative responsibilities and then supervises that manager’s performance.

Currently, with the present strong mayor form of government, if there are issues with the mayor’s performance or expertise, we need to look within the confines of this community.

That person would be required to give up their existing career to run against the incumbent, raise tens of thousands of dollars for a campaign or wait until the next open election.

What if we elect a mayor that fails as a manager? We then need to wait four years to elect someone else. In the meantime, we could be saddled with four years of chaos and the financial and structural harm to our city.

There is an additional advantage. There is a professionally established code of ethics for city managers.

The Code specifies 12 ethical principles of personal and professional conduct, including dedication to the cause of good government.

In 1914, a group of appointed managers formed a professional association, eventually known as the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), to share their expertise and experiences in local government management. Since that time, ICMA has been the professional organization for appointed chief management executives in local government.

The purposes of ICMA are to enhance the quality of local government through professional management and to support and assist professional local government administrators internationally.

To that end, the Association provides technical assistance and publications to better assure that we have the best administrator to run our city. Who do you really think is going to be more accountable to you and to your neighbor?

ICMA members believe in the effectiveness of representative democracy and the value of government services provided equitably to citizens within a community. ICMA members also are committed to standards of honesty and integrity more vigorous than those required by the law. Contact ICMA for a copy of the Code of Ethics.

Therefore, I will be proposing to the Edmonds City Council that we place on the ballot a new form of government – City Manager in lieu of current Mayor. 

Then the people of Edmonds may vote on this new form of local government, which would be enacted soon after the vote.  To reform our local government with a city-manager will move our city forward with professional management, more accountability, and improved citizen’s participation.

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