The Yakima City Council will discuss a possible switch in how city government operates at its next regularly scheduled meeting Nov. 5.
The city has a council-manager form of government, consisting of an elected City Council that handles policymaking and a professional city manager, hired by the council, who handles administrative responsibilities and personnel and oversees daily operations.
Yakima Valley Business Times Publisher Bruce Smith, Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita and former mayor Dave Edler are proposing a switch to a mayor-council form, sometimes called an “elected mayor” or “strong mayor” form of government.
Here are some questions and answers about the proposal:
Right now, Yakima’s mayor is a council member elected by voters in a district. Council members vote among themselves to select a mayor, who serves as the ceremonial head of city government.
If the voters decide to switch to a mayor-council government, the mayor would replace the city manager and become responsible for that position’s duties: managing the city’s daily operations, implementing council policies and hiring and firing employees.
The ceremonial duties of the mayor in Yakima’s government would shift to a council president, who would lead council meetings. The elected mayor would attend council meetings to provide information as needed but would not vote in council proceedings. The mayor can recommend legislation and veto council decisions, but vetoes can be overridden by a supermajority vote of the council.
The mayor would elected at large to a four-year term.
What do other cities do?
Only 54 of 281 cities in Washington state have the council-manager form of government, but those cities make up about 40 percent of the state’s population, according to the Municipal Research Services Center. The MRSC also notes that it’s not uncommon for medium-to-large cities like Yakima to have a council-manager form of government.
Kelso, Richland, Tacoma and Vancouver have a council-manager government like Yakima’s. Cities that have a mayor-council form of government include Bellingham, Everett, Seattle and Spokane. The MRSC notes that eight cities in Washington have changed their form of government since 2005, while efforts in many more cities failed after voters rejected the proposed changes.
What about the city manager?
Yakima is between city managers after Cliff Moore left Aug. 20. The council earlier this month extended an interim city manager offer to Alex Meyerhoff of California, and is still in negotiations.
Many mayor-council cities have hired professional city administrators, sometimes called chief administrative officers or CEOs, to serve under the mayor and assist with day-to-day operations, according to the MRSC.
In Yakima, proponents of the switch said the mayor would be paid $120,000, and a city administrator would act as the mayor’s top deputy. The change would make the city’s assistant city manager position unnecessary, according to their proposal. Senior City Attorney Cynthia Martinez is the city's temporary interim manager. City Public Works Director Scott Schafer is serving as interim assistant city manager .
What about the Voting Rights Act?
The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued Yakima in 2012, arguing that a citywide or “at large” City Council structure violated the Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising Latino voters. In 2014, a federal court agreed. A shift to the city’s district system resulted, where council members are elected by voters from within the district where they live. A shift to a strong mayor, in a citywide election, likely would get the city sued again, Councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez said. Smith disagreed, saying the ruling applied to council positions.
What’s the process to put this issue on the ballot?
State law allows items to be added to a ballot either through voter initiative or City Council referendum. For an initiative, organizers must obtain signatures equal to 15% of votes cast in the preceding general city election in order to put the measure on the ballot. For a referendum, a majority of City Council members must vote in favor of adding the topic to the ballot.
For Councilwoman Kay Funk, a main concern is why the City Council should be the ones to add the charter changes — through a referendum — to the February 2020 ballot. She questioned whether doing so would increase the city’s liability in the event of another lawsuit by the ACLU.
Smith said that asking the council to add the changes to the ballot via referendum is an easier process. He said the proposed changes would allow voters to decide who runs City Hall on a day-to-day basis while also creating an executive position with a political obligation to the entire community, not just one district.
Didn’t we vote on this before?
Yes. Yakima voters turned down a similar proposal in 2011 with 48% in favor and 52% against.
What’s the timeline?
The proposed timeline would require the council to make a decision in mid-December to add the measure to the February 2020 ballot. Should the measure pass, candidates would file for the new mayor position in May 2020 for the November election. The city could see an elected mayor by January 2021.
What do council members say?
We’ll have more from council members later this week in the Yakima Herald-Republic.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to state Senior City Attorney Cynthia Martinez is the city's temporary interim manager. City Public Works Director Scott Schafer is serving as interim assistant city manager. The mayor's responsibilities have been updated.