LYNNWOOD — Residents here are getting a rare chance this election to fundamentally change the way power is wielded and decisions made at City Hall.
And they could wind up demoting Mayor Don Gough in the process — and he’s not even on the ballot.
Proposition 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot would toss out Lynnwood’s current form of government in which voters directly elect a mayor to be the city’s chief executive officer.
In its place, it calls for switching to a model in which a professional city manager is hired and supervised by the City Council to oversee Lynnwood’s day-to-day operations.
If the measure passes, Gough would become an eighth council member for the last two years of his term. He’d lose his $95,617-a-year full-time mayoral salary as well and begin earning $1,650 a month — for an annual $19,800 salary — as a part-time council member.
Proposition 1 arrives before voters as Lynnwood city leaders face another year of budget deficits, hard questions on their use of traffic safety cameras and leftover tension from the probe into Gough’s treatment of women workers.
It is the product of frustration of residents, including current and former city workers, who dislike Gough’s leadership and say his decaying relations with a majority of City Council members impede a coherent response to the litany of challenges.
Seeds of their effort were planted in 2010 when they say Gough failed as the city’s chief executive to keep the council informed of the extent of the city’s fragile fiscal health. It led to enactment of new and higher taxes and spawned what’s become an ongoing rift between the mayor and some council members.
Backers of the measure also point to the internal investigation as the price the city pays for relying on political rather than professional leaders to oversee the city’s day-to-day operation. The mayor answers to no one but the voters, while a city manager who behaved similarly could be fired by the council, they noted.
Operating under the banner of People for a Better Lynnwood, their leader insists the bottom line is Lynnwood’s future development will be stalled until there is a new form of government.
“We cannot go on like this and have a vital city,” said Ron Siddell, a retired Lynnwood employee and onetime Mukilteo City Councilman.
He said he contemplated trying to oust Gough through a recall in 2010 then decided it wouldn’t permanently fix the problem if successful.
“Every mayor we’ve had has come off the council so they fight and jockey for position,” he said. “A bigger intervention is needed.”
Five City Council members signaled a degree of agreement when they voted in January to put the measure on the ballot. Councilwoman Kimberly Cole also signed the voters pamphlet statement in support, which concludes:
“A city manager would carry out city business without the taint of politics or related allegiances. A professional manager, hired by and answerable to the voter-elected City Council, would empower city employees, be more accountable and provide the leadership Lynnwood needs as it moves forward.”
Council President Mark Smith dissented in January and remains one of the leading voices of opposition.
He said Proposition 1 would eliminate the important check and balance between the city’s executive and legislative branches. If it passes, the council would choose a mayor from its ranks but that person could not veto any council decision or overrule any city manager action.
Smith* said his second main objection is the way the measure reached the ballot. There was no “true citizen movement” in which backers collected signatures on petitions to demonstrate widespread desire for the change.
“There was no public outcry for this. This is a small group of disgruntled current and former city employees,” Smith said. “It was simply a mechanism for them to get rid of Don Gough.
“What I worry about is residents have been sold some rosy picture that having a city manager is going to solve all our problems because it’s not,” he said. “If people want to really effect change they should start with the council.”
The majority of cities and towns in Washington operate with the strong mayor form of government, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington. MSRC is a private nonprofit that gathers and disseminates information on governmental services.
Its research found 228 of the state’s 281 cities and towns use this model while 52 operate under the council-manager structure sought in Proposition 1. One city, Shelton, has a commission form of governance.
Both types are in use in Snohomish County. For example, Everett and Mukilteo are strong mayor cities while Bothell, Mountlake Terrace and Mill Creek are council-manager models.
Lynnwood residents are debating a question that comes up in one city or another almost every year.
Between 1990 and 2010, six cities changed from the council-manager to the mayor-council form. Federal Way was the most recent in 2009. In the same period, nine cities went the other way with Bainbridge Island the most recent in 2009.
In August, voters in Langley in Island County considered the matter and overwhelmingly rejected a move to get rid of its directly elected mayor.
Thus far in the Lynnwood campaign, People for a Better Lynnwood is doing the only raising and spending of money.
It’s received $17,910 in cash and in-kind contributions including $4,700 from the International City/County Management Association, the national trade group for city managers. The group reported $14,000 in spending as of Tuesday.
Opponents formed No on Proposition 1 in late September but listed no donations or expenditures as of Tuesday.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Proposition 1 would change Lynnwood’s form of government from the strong mayor model, where voters directly elect a mayor to be the city’s chief executive, to the council-manager form, where the City Council hires a professional manager to oversee the city’s day-to-day operations.
Information in support of Proposition 1 can be found online at http://peopleforabetterlynnwood.com/.
Opponents do not have a website yet in the campaign.
To learn more about forms of city government, go to www.mrsc.org/.
* Correction, Oct. 13, 2011: This article originally used an incorrect name for Council President Mark Smith