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Change of city’s status, government in voters’ hand
City voters will have a chance to change the city’s status and form of government during this year’s Nov. 5 general election.
Proposition No. 1 would authorize to change Port Orchard’s classification from a second-class city to a noncharter code city and to adopt a council-manager plan of government rather than a mayor-council.
It’s not the first time the city has looked at changing to a code city.
In May 2011, under Mayor Lary Coppola, the council passed a resolution that changed the city’s classification from a second-class to code city after several sparsely attended public hearings about the issue.
In August 2011, the council rescinded the resolution. It voted to retain the second-class status to save money after residents Gil and Kathy Michael collected about 550 signatures to put the issue before citizens in the next election.
They got the signatures within 90 days of the council’s vote for the status change — a deadline that the council and city attorney mentioned several times at public hearings and council meetings about the issue. But the Michaels missed a deadline to get the measure placed on the November 2011 general election.
As a result, the next opportunity to vote on the issue was in a special election in February 2012. The price tag for letting citizens vote on the issue jumped from $5,000 for adding a ballot measure to the November election, to up to $30,000 for a special election if no other districts shared the cost.
For and against
Nick Whittleton, chairman for the Committee Against the Measure, said three reasons voters should vote against Prop. No. 1 because if it passes the position of mayor will not appear on any future ballots and people lose the executive branch of government within the city.
He also said he opposes the measure because the council combined two completely different issues into one ballot measure.
“There has been no compelling reason, given or expressed by the city council for these changes,” Whittleton said.
But Fred Olin, chairman of Citizens for Professional Government, said changing the city’s status from a second-class city to a noncharter code city and form of government from mayor-council to council-manager will benefit the city and its citizens.
He said the measure is not a “right to vote” issue.
“No one is being disenfranchised,” Olin said. “We would still have a city government accountable to the voters every two years.
Olin, a former Port Orchard councilman, said the issue is simple — will the day-to-day operations of our city be better managed by a politician or a qualified professional manager?
“We don’t elect the city engineer, we hire a professional,” Olin said. “We don’t elect the city treasurer, we hire a professional. We shouldn’t elect our CEO, we should hire a professional.”
He said a council-manager would assure consistency in government, which encourages future development (both public and private), aligns roles and responsibilities with appropriate qualifications, day-to-day management performed by a non-partisan professional manager and policy and direction provided by a city council, elected by and accountable to the voters.
When asked to reference independent sources to support his position, Whittleton cited four newspaper articles from 2012 about Bainbridge Island, Port Townsend, Port Angeles and Olympia — all with city managers — along with a letter from the Port Angeles city manager to employees about budget shortfall in 2013.
One of the articles Whittleton referenced was about the Port Angeles city manager leaving for Texas after being with the city for less than four years. Another cited Olympia cutting 16 employees and $2.5 million from its budget.
Olin said according to a IBM Benchmarking Study, cities with city manager forms of government are nearly 10 percent more efficient than cities with strong mayor forms of government.
Olin said voters should support the measure because cities with city managers have been found to be 10 percent more efficient than cities with strong mayors.
“That would mean about $900,000 in reduced costs, improved operations and better public safety,” Olin said.
He also cited data from the Municipal Research Service Center (MRSC) that of the 17 newly incorporated cities in the state of Washington, 16 chose the council-manager form of government and one chose mayor-council.
Disagreeing with opposition
Olin said there are several points the opposition claims that he and his group disagrees with. They disagree with the claim that it would cost about $500,000 to implement the change with a city manager.
“The ongoing costs of a city manager will be roughly comparable to what we currently pay the mayor and his assistant,” Olin said.
He said the cost to implement the change will be about $15,000 for the special election (to reelect council members) and $20,000 for a search firm if used.
“A half-million dollars is very unrealistic,” Olin said. “With potential efficiencies of $900,000, the benefits far outweigh any possible costs. We would fully expect a city manager to earn their way.”
So why change?
Olin said the council developed a four-page “Frequently Asked Questions” in arriving at their 6-1 decision to place the measure on the ballot.
“We have chosen to run a positive campaign based on the benefits of a city manager, rather than focus on any problems that our existing system may have caused,” Olin added.
Whittleton said they disagree with the opposition using the mayor’s salary, including benefits and an assistant’s salary, to cover the entire cost of a city manager’s estimated $120,000 salary.
“The reason being, the city clerk’s office has always functioned as an assistant to the mayor,” Whittleton said. “There is no additional assistant.”
He said the $120,000 quoted salary will increase to about $156,000 to $168,000 with the addition of benefits and a severance package provided.
Whittleton said he also disagrees that Port Orchard needs to be like Port Townsend, Port Angeles, Bainbridge Island and Olympia.
“Port Orchard has a balanced budget with no cuts in service or personnel, contrary to the cities listed,” he noted.
In the Voters’ Pamphlet, Whittleton’s group stated money for a city manager’s salary, benefits, recruiting and severance package would come from higher water and sewer rates, and stormwater fees.
Olin said monies from water, sewer and stormwater fees go into separate accounts and not into the general fund.
City Treasurer Allan Martin said Tuesday that under state law, a city can not increase utility rates to cover a general fund expense. Martin said most administrative costs come from the general fund, not from water, sewer or stormwater rates and fees.
Code city vs. second-class city
Second class cities only have authority to do what the state legislature has specifically allowed them to do, but code cities have every authority that’s not prohibited by the state.
Olin said that 190 of the 199 cities eligible have become a code city and have not changed back.
He said converting from “second class” to non-charter code city will provide Port Orchard with more autonomy to conduct its business, and will make initiatives and referendums available to city voters.
“It is telling that only nine cities in the state of Washington still are classified “second class” and Port Orchard is the largest of the nine,” Olin said.
Port Orchard is the only city in the western part of the state, while the other eight (Chewelah, Colfax, Colville, Davenport, Palouse, Ritzville, Tekoa and Wapato) are in eastern Washington.
There are no second-class cities operating under the council-manager form of government, MRSC reported.
Whittleton said he did not explore the code city portion in depth, because the disadvantages of a city manager were important.
“This is one of the problems with a two-part ballot measure,” he said.
Whittleton said the current form of city government will create revenue as it always has.
“We have knowledgeable department heads that are very experienced in getting grants,” he said.
But Olin said a city manager can help the city to generate revenue in a number of ways.
He said a city manager would ensure consistency in government that encourages future development, both public and private; maintain contacts that will improve access to grants and other funding sources; facilitate development and execution of a master vision for Port Orchard that will promote future development and revenue generation and achieve efficiencies that can be reinvested in city operations.
“ A professional city manager and effective staff can identify grant and bonding opportunities, streamline city operations, introduce technology improvements, recruit new businesses and plan for the fiscal health of the city,” Olin added.