Candidates for the Yakima City Council have a mix of opinions about possibly switching from a council-manager form of government to a strong mayor system.
The council last week voted 3-2 to discuss asking voters to weigh in on a switch in February.
In a mayor-council government, sometimes referred to as a “strong mayor” or “elected mayor” system, the mayor runs the city’s day-to-day operations and hires and fires employees. The mayor, elected at large, attends and presides over council meetings, but does not vote, except in the case of a tie, according to information from the Municipal Research and Services Center.
Some mayor-council communities also have a city administrator, who serves under the mayor and assists with administrative and policymaking responsibilities.
Right now, Yakima’s mayor is an elected council member who is appointed to the job by a vote of the council. The mayor runs council meetings and votes, but a city manager is responsible for day-to-day operations and handles personnel and the city budget.
To make a switch, voters would need to approve a change in the city’s charter. Yakima voters turned down a similar proposal in 2011.
Some have raised concerns about Yakima’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act in making a change, and council members asked for more information from legal staff to prepare for upcoming discussions.
Four council positions are on the ballot on Nov. 5, and three incumbents opted not to seek reelection.
We asked all the candidates the following question: What are your thoughts on a strong mayor form of government for Yakima?
Here are their responses:
Kenton Gartrell: I’m 100% for an elected (strong) mayor system. I’m 100% for the district system, which gave more rights and representation for our people. Anyone who would think they have more of a right or would take this right away can’t truly be for freedom and the people, can they?
Eliana Macias: I do not support a strong mayor form of government. The council-manager form of government is the most common form used across the country. There is not evidence or merit to change the city’s form of government at this point. There is, however, reason to be cautious about this issue. Yakima is under a federal court order (injunction) that prohibits at-large elections. The recent Voting Rights Act lawsuit proved at-large elections in Yakima violate the voting rights of Latino citizens. A strong-mayor form of government would re-introduce an at-large city elected position, and therefore would stand in violation of federal injunction. Any at-large election in Yakima will almost certainly be challenged in federal court again.
Patricia Byers: There is a high level of interest to move into a strong-mayor form of government in Yakima. And there are certainly benefits to such a change. I am very open to the discussion, would bring it forward with the new council, and would likely be in favor. Whether our current form is council-city manager or strong mayor, we can have an effective governance of our city if all elected council persons are committed to smart budgeting with fiscal responsibility, a citywide focus, effective communication, positive and possible solutions to issues, and the will to do the right thing.
Thomas Sund: This issue needs to be carefully considered, so as not to have a lawsuit with the ACLU in implementing this form of government. People are disappointed in the last two city managers, which has left a bad taste with many people. A continuous turnover in a city manager, (can be) caused by the manager using this as a stepping stone to larger communities or retirement reasons. I do not think a vote to change the charter should be a hasty decision, but (we should) explore all avenues.
Soneya Lund: Everyone I talk to in my district is frustrated with the manager/council form of government we have. I am willing to put it on a ballot to go to a vote. I’m in favor of letting people decide.
My view depends on what a strong mayor form of government looks like, and what responsibilities and accountability does an elected mayor have, and how that affects the council.
Liz Hallock: No, I will not be supporting a (strong) mayor system at this time. This is not how to conduct open government. A mayor will take decision-making power away from City Council members; by nature, it will weaken the representation of the Latino community. I have spoken at length to Latino constituents in District 5, my district, and District 1, where I work. Many are outraged this is even on the table so soon after a judge shot down in the ACLU lawsuit the city’s proposal that two council members be elected citywide.
Holly Cousens: I have been publicly in favor of an elected (strong) mayor form of government. (I was) elected in the historic election in 2015, where we were the first seated council with district representation, individually serving Yakima looking through a district lens. Having seven districts with seven council members all fighting to get projects in their districts on the list of priorities creates sort of a competition between council members. Having an elected mayor would guarantee that there would be one person looking out for the entire City with every decision made.
Editor’s note: Cousens’ opponent, Sarah Towell, has withdrawn from the race, although her name still appears on the ballot.
Reporters Mai Hoang, Phil Ferolito and Lex Talamo contributed to this report.