Former Yakima leaders have mixed opinions about a new form of city government.
At its Nov. 19 meeting, Yakima City Council voted 4-3 to ask voters in February about switching to a strong-mayor system. The change, proposed by Yakima Valley Business Times Publisher Bruce Smith, Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita and former Mayor Dave Edler, would allow voters citywide to elect a mayor to oversee Yakima’s daily operations, including hiring and firing of city personnel.
Voters would still elect council members by district, as they do now under the council-manager form of government. In the current system, the mayor is selected by the council and serves a largely ceremonial role.
February elections historically have lower turnout. Yakima County elections data from the past five years shows that voter turnout for special elections in February has ranged from 31% to 38%, with Latino participation — as tracked through Spanish surnames — ranging from 13% to 21%.
By contrast, data for general elections in November put voter turnout between 28% and 71% and Latino participation between 13% and 55%. The council voted 4-3 against a motion to move the measure to the November ballot.
In 2011, when Dick Zais retired after 32 years as the city manager, proponents of a strong mayor system pitched the issue to voters, who shot down the proposal, with 52% voting no. The city has since had three city managers: Don Cooper, who served for less than five months before resigning in December 2011; Tony O’Rourke, who served from July 2012 to 2015; and Cliff Moore, who served from May 2016 to August 2019.
O’Rourke told media that a new redistricting system that followed a Voting Rights Act lawsuit, filed in 2012 and decided in 2014 by a federal judge, precipitated his resignation. Prior to the lawsuit, the City Council had three of its seven members chosen through “at large” or citywide elections, which the American Civil Liberties Union alleged disenfranchised Latino voters.
The lawsuit cost Yakima $3 million in legal fees and resulted in a new district system. The next year, in 2015, Avina Gutierrez, Carmen Mendez and Dulce Gutierrez became the first elected Latina council members in the city’s history.
But the new system has not been without visible dysfunction among its elected representatives. Critics point to the handling of the Yakima Central Plaza development proposed downtown, which was turned down by voters after private donors contributed or pledged more than $9 million. The council voted in April to censure Councilwoman Kay Funk for “inappropriate comments,” stripping her of all her board, commission and committee assignments for six months.
Those in support of the 2019 strong mayor proposal said that kind of dysfunction likely wouldn’t have existed with a strong mayor. They say voters have the right to decide what kind of government they want, and that an elected mayor would be held accountable to all of the city’s residents, whereas a city manager only needs the support of four council members.
Those against a strong mayor say an elected mayor would not have the same experience or expertise as a city manager, that any citywide election will once again disenfranchise Latino voters and open the city to costly litigation, and that the city doesn’t have the money to fund salaries for the city administrator and an elected mayor.
In their written proposal to the council, supporters said the city administrator would provide technical, municipal expertise, and Yakima’s assistant city manager position would be unnecessary under the new system.
Former city officials are divided on the mayor-council question. Six former Yakima City Council members and mayors took the time to share their thoughts about a possible switch.
Dave Edler, in favor
Dave Edler started as a city councilman in 2003. He was elected mayor in January 2006 and served in that role until he was replaced by Micah Cawley in 2010. Edler has spoken in the past about being in favor of legalized immigration and wanting to see more Hispanics elected to office in Yakima.
He is one of the three people who helped draft the 2019 strong mayor proposal, and he’s open about his willingness to run for the position should voters approve the charter changes in February.
“I would love to be the mayor of Yakima in this kind of form,” he said. “I haven’t let myself wander too deeply into that yet because I am watching the process unfold, but I will absolutely be thinking about whether I should throw my name in the hat.”
Edler said the council-manager form of government does not reward leadership ability or inspire accountability to all city residents in the daily decisions facing the city’s leader.
“All a city manager is trying to do is appease four of seven council members,” he said. “Not only does an elected mayor have to stay within the guidelines of the City Council, but they are answerable to everyone.”
Edler said the city has also endured dysfunction with previous councils, in part because of flaws in the council-manager system.
“People are starting to realize that it doesn’t matter who you put around the horseshoe, because the system itself doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s created division in the community. We need a strong individual, and there are strong people in our community who have strong leadership and track records of success.”
Neil McClure, against
Neil McClure served on the Yakima City Council from 2005-09. He was against the strong mayor form of government in 2011 and is against it now, citing the benefit of having a city manager with municipal experience and expertise running the daily affairs of the city.
“We need professionals, because government is complicated,” he said.
McClure noted Zais’ departure after decades as city manager was possibly a factor in the 2011 strong mayor proposal, but the expertise Zais brought to the city was beneficial. McClure said he had the pleasure of serving in a stable environment, whereas elections every four years for an elected mayor could bring a quick succession of mayors, creating instability.
“People really undervalued the experience Dick Zais brought,” he said. “Now we’ve had a revolving door of city managers. With a strong mayor and people voting every four years for one, they’ll be in and out.”
McClure noted council quibbles in the past four years might cause some voters to feel the system is not working, but cautioned people against knee-jerk reactions to change the system, especially with a relatively new council. He also is concerned about the concentration of power afforded to a strong mayor, especially if an unqualified person is elected.
“This proposal certainly puts all the power in the hands of a strong mayor, with little governance,” he said. “And to think that someone who comes in with an agenda is going to save this community from itself, that’s not going to happen.”
He’s also concerned about the issue being on the February ballot and what a mayor elected in an at-large election could mean for Latino representation in Yakima.
“It’s disappointing that the people who say they want to better represent the people are doing this when there’s the lowest turnout,” he said. “It’s going to be a major change for our community, and it will be with us for a while.
“I also think it will be a step backward for representation, because I saw it when I was on the council. All the at-large positions were elected by the west side. It won’t wipe out the representation, but it will steamroll the representation.”
Dave Ettl, in favor
Dave Ettl joined the Yakima City Council in 2009 in one of the city’s three at-large positions. He won a second term in 2013 but chose not to run for reelection after the 2014 ruling in the ACLU lawsuit that created the city’s district system.
Ettl said he’s in favor of the strong mayor proposal because “having someone who handles daily operations be accountable to the voters makes a lot of sense.”
Ettl said the first push for the strong mayor form, in 2010 and 2011, was a reaction to Dick Zais leaving after more than three decades of managing the city. Ettl said he was against the switch in 2011 but agreed with putting the choice before voters to see if they wanted a different system.
He noted that a small number of votes separated proponents and opponents in the 2011 vote. County elections data shows 7,035 people, or 48%, voted in favor and 7,750 people or 52% voted against.
“Now we find ourselves at a crossroads again, and now is the time to ask that question again,” Ettl said. “A lot of people who are going to vote for this are fed up with what they’ve seen over the last few years.”
Ettl said adopting a strong-mayor form of government does not mean Yakima will become plagued by problems like those recently faced by Wapato, which has a strong-mayor form of government. Wapato has faced more than a dozen lawsuits and eight audit findings of mismanagement and violations of state law under its former appointed Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa and Juan Orozco, whom she appointed city administrator.
“People want to point to the risk of Orozco,” he said. “If that happens, it’s on us. But an elected mayor has to be liked by a broad swath of people and will be accountable to all voters.”
Ettl said the veto power afforded to the mayor could be used for the greater good, while the ability of a supermajority vote of council to override that veto would provide a check and balance.
“I think there’s a concern out there that the mayor will be vetoing everything, but I don’t think that will happen and I don’t think the people want that,” Ettl said.
He pointed out that council members will still be elected through the current district system.
“People say it’s taking their vote away, but they’re actually getting an extra vote for accountability,” he said.
Sonia Rodriguez True, against
Sonia Rodriguez True was appointed to the Yakima City Council to fill a vacancy in 2008. She ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 2009, losing to Dave Ettl when she received about 48% of the vote compared to Ettl’s 52%.
True opposes the strong-mayor proposal. She also isn’t convinced that there’s any compelling evidence that Yakima’s voters even want to consider it.
“This strong mayor system was previously voted down by the people in the February 2011 election,” she said. “It is uncertain why there’s a need to raise this issue now, since there is no actual evidence of any compelling reason to bring this forward.”
Rodriguez True said she’s concerned the restructured system would only benefit “a certain special group,” and that group is not the city’s Latinos, she added.
“The strong mayor system in our city is potentially a violation of the Voting Rights Act, meaning that the strong mayor proposal would violate the civil rights of our community members,” she said. “It is clear to me that the council members do not have the city’s best interests in mind when supporting this system.”
She’s worried that switching to a strong mayor system is an attempt to undercut the 2014 ruling in the Voting Rights Act lawsuit.
“I am concerned that the strong mayor system is only put forward to circumvent the district-specific election system prescribed by the federal court, which brought the city in compliance with the Voting Rights Act,” she said.
Maureen Adkison, in favor
Maureen Adkison served eight years on the Yakima City Council. She was elected in 2009 and served through 2017. She was one of four council members who voted against Yakima becoming a sanctuary or “welcoming” city in 2017.
Adkison was originally against the strong mayor form of government in 2011. She said she’s since come around to support the proposal.
“I feel very strongly at this point that a strong mayor, with a strong hand, is needed for this city,” Adkison said. “Our city needs a rudder. We are going in circles. Nothing has been done in four years.”
Adkison, a strong supporter of the defeated plaza plans, said the outcome might have differed had a strong mayor system been in place.
“The bar for the money we had to raise was raised four times, and we raised the money, and then we didn’t do it,” she said. “I think if we had a strong mayor, what happened to the plaza wouldn’t have happened.”
Adkison said people’s perceptions of council dysfunction in recent years certainly will push some voters to support the strong-mayor proposal.
“The last time, I was against it, but now when I go out into the community, people are asking me what we can do to change,” she said. “With a strong mayor, if we had the dysfunction that was going on in the past four years, it would be the mayor’s job to call in those people.”
Mary Place, against
Mary Place served as the mayor of Yakima from 2000-04. During her tenure, Place also served as the president of the Association of Washington Cities, which expanded her perspective on government operations, she said.
She’s against the proposed change.
“The strong mayor form is not my favorite form of government,” she said. “I think that four heads are better than one, and in a city the size of Yakima, it’s hard to find someone with the subject expertise to know everything.”
Place pointed to Wapato as an example of what could go wrong with a strong-mayor government.
Place said she’s OK with putting the issue to voters; she just wishes the council had chosen a different election cycle.
In February, voters also will decide two Yakima School District property tax levies.
“I’m afraid this will hurt the school levies,” she said. “I’m also in favor of putting ballot measures when there’s more voter turnout.”
The additional costs involved with the charter changes, particularly salaries for a mayor and a city administrator, also concern her.
“The mayor and administrator would cost at least $200,000, and that’s extra money we don’t have,” she said. “I’m worried about the city’s finances.”
Place said city officials need to spend more time working together, regardless of the future of the city’s governmental structure.
“Yakima is a great place to live, and we could be doing a better job of working together, no matter what form of government we have,” she said.