UNION GAP, Wash. — All indications are that Union Gap will shift to a council-manager form of government, but how that change will unfold is still raising questions.
One potential candidate for city manager is current city administrator and fire Chief Chris Jensen, but mixed signals from council members suggest his hiring isn’t a foregone conclusion.
“I’m favorable toward Chris,” Councilman Chad Lentz said. “However, I can see the point in opening up a search.”
The latest ballot count Wednesday on the election to change the city’s form of government shows the measure still passing 53 percent (525 votes) to 47 percent (460 votes). While the percentage of approval dropped slightly from 55 percent on Tuesday night, Lemon and other city officials say they believe the measure will still pass.
The mayor’s office will be eliminated immediately once results are certified Nov. 27, said Union Gap city attorney Bob Noe.
Patrick Mason, a legal consultant with the Municipal Research Services Center in Seattle, said the City Council has the authority to immediately appoint someone to the city manager position after that date without conducting a search for candidates.
Jensen confirmed Wednesday that he is interested in the position.
“If the council wishes to put me there, I’m interested in going there,” he said.
Council members who responded to calls from the Yakima Herald-Republic on Wednesday had varying stances on how to proceed. Lemon, who will serve as a temporary eighth member of the council for the next three years, hired Jensen as city administrator in June and said he supports making him the permanent manager.
“He’s done a pretty good job, he’s worked well with the council,” Lemon said. “I think he’s got a better grasp on what’s needed to be done than just about anybody.”
The man who filed the petition to change the government, Councilman Dan Olson, said he wants the city to appoint a manager who has held such a role with other cities for a number of years.
Jensen, whose city administrator contract expires Dec. 31, only has previous administrative experience with other cities’ fire departments.
“This is a huge turn of events in Union Gap,” Olson said. “It’s a great opportunity to move forward with qualified management.”
Most council members hailed the change as necessary for a small municipality that has seen its retail base grow strongly in recent years. However, Councilman Dave Matson expressed frustration with the change.
“Who’s going to be accountable now?” Matson said. “Who are you going to blame if things go wrong?”
Matson said he supports appointing Jensen to the city manager position, but he doesn’t have any indication how the rest of the council would vote.
“Chris is pretty reasonable,” Matson said.
Councilman Roger Wentz said he’s always favored a council-manager form of government.
Wentz said Olson is the only council member to his knowledge who would outright reject Jensen.
He said Jensen has done well handling a number of crises in city government, such as the closure of City Hall for mold issues and managing personnel.
“Has (Jensen) got all the experience I would like to see? No,” Wentz said. “But I think you get that on the job.”
Jensen would remain fire chief if he’s not appointed city manager. Lemon would likely have to challenge a fellow City Council member in 2015 if he wants to stay on permanently.
The change in government will also decrease Lemon’s monthly stipend from $2,000 to $600. It’s unclear when the council would determine the salary for the eventual city manager.
Jensen said no one from the council has contacted him yet to place discussion of the change of government on the meeting agenda.
The next Union Gap City Council meeting will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday, a day later than normal because of the Veterans Day holiday the city will observe Monday.