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The Yakima City Council declined Tuesday to pitch a strong mayor proposal to voters at the November general election through its referendum powers. 

Backers of an effort to change Yakima’s system of government have until August to collect the 2,300 signatures needed to get the issue on the November ballot.

The Yakima City Council declined to use its power to send the proposed change to a strong mayor system to voters at its Tuesday meeting.

Yakima has a council-manager form of government, in which a council-appointed city manager governs the daily running of affairs.

In October, three private citizens — Yakima Valley Business Times Publisher Bruce Smith, former Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita and former Yakima mayor Dave Edler — proposed the city switch to a strong mayor form of government, in which a mayor elected in a citywide vote would replace the city manager in overseeing the city’s affairs.

The council approved through a 4-3 vote to put the possible switch on the February ballot, but later voted unanimously to pull the measure when three groups sued the city over the proposal — twice. The two lawsuits took issue with technicalities over the ballot title and language, as well as the timing of the election.

State law allows issues to get onto ballots in two ways: either through a council referendum, in which a City Council approves adding the measure, or through a voter initiative, in which citizens must collect signatures equal to 15% of votes cast in the preceding general city election. One lawsuit noted that council referendums can only go before voters during a November general election.

The private citizens backing the change drafted the version of the strong mayor proposal approved by the Yakima City Council last year, trumping the version prepared by the city’s own legal department.

On Tuesday, City Councilman Jason White asked for council approval to direct city staff to work with the strong mayor proponents to craft a resolution and ballot language that could be finalized by March 20.

The council rejected that proposal with a 4-3 vote, with council members Eliana Macias, Kay Funk, Soneya Lund and Brad Hill voting against. White, Mayor Patricia Byers and council members Holly Cousens voted in favor.

The narrow decision left the matter for voters to bring forth the issue themselves through the initiative process.

Strong mayor discussion

Eight people spoke against bringing back the strong mayor proposal during public comment. Four spoke in favor, including Smith and Leita.

Opponents said there is no evidence Yakima citizens want the change, that any at-large election would disenfranchise Latino voters, and that moving to a strong mayor form of government would likely involve costly litigation.

Those in favor argued voters have the right to decide what form of government they want for the city, that it would be too difficult to get the measure on the ballot through the initiative process, that many other cities in Washington have a strong mayor form of government, and that threats of litigation shouldn’t be enough to stop the council from taking action.

The council adjourned for a 30 minute executive session prior to public discussion of the strong mayor issue.

Afterward, White said he had concerns about the validity of concerns brought forth by opponents, including whether a strong mayor would dilute the Latino vote and whether the proposal would fit within the city’s budget.

White and Cousens said voters had the right to choose their form of government. Lund and Hill countered that could be accomplished through the initiative process by collecting the needed signatures.

“In November, proponents didn’t have time,” said Hill, who voted in favor of a council referendum last year. “I can’t see why they can’t collect them now, besides (Smith) and (Leita) don’t want to do it that way.”

Smith said during public comment that the initiative process was “not as easy as it seems” and would be “too much work for too little reward.” He said proponents would need to collect 2,300 signatures. But to be safe, proponents likely would want to collect between 2,500 and 2,700 signatures, he said.

Smith said the council’s refusal to place the item on the ballot would not protect the city from lawsuits if it passes through an initiative. He also told the council it shouldn’t leave “someone else to do the hard work.”

Hill said proponents’ estimates amounted to collecting about 12 signatures a day.

Byers said she heard interest from voters about learning about a strong mayor switch while campaigning in her City Council race.

“People were interested in learning more,” Byers said. “I made a commitment to moving it forward. I am a person who keeps my word.”

Funk said she was against pitching the proposal to voters through a council referendum and risking litigation, as well as using city attorney time to work with proponents on the proposal. Macias shared concerns that any citywide election would dilute the Latino vote and that a strong mayor is unnecessary.

“Under good leadership, the council and mayor can have a strong hold on the city manager,” Macias said. “I don’t think we need a mayor that has a voice that’s stronger than the council.”

The city manager search

Hill said the council needs to take steps to hire a permanent city manager.

Byers said the council would have to be honest with candidates that a voter initiative could still change the charter. She said the city could either look to hire a permanent manager or extend Interim City Manager Alex Meyerhoff’s contract.

Meyerhoff signed a six-month contract with the city that ends in May. Hill asked if the council could extend it.

“We know him, and no one seems to have a problem with his leadership,” Hill said.

Funk asked Meyerhoff to oversee the search for a city manager. Macias asked if that approach would be a conflict of interest if Meyerhoff were interested in the permanent position or remaining for an extended time with the city.

Lund asked Meyerhoff if he is willing to stay with Yakima through the end of the year. He said he was. Byers then said it would be good to know whether he is interested in the permanent position, and Cousens asked that the discussion be postponed.

The council unanimously agreed to discuss the matter at a later meeting.

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.