Granite Falls voters to consider switching form of government

GRANITE FALLS — Voters here get to decide this year whether to remake their government and shift power from an elected mayor to a hired city manager.

It was Mayor Joshua Golston’s idea to lessen the authority of his position. The City Council last month voted 3-1 to put the issue in front of voters in November.

More than half of city voters would need to say yes in order to abandon the current mayor-council, or strong mayor, form of government and hire a city manager, county elections manager Garth Fell said.

Generally, a council-manager administration is run more like a business, where the manager serves as a chief executive officer who oversees city staff and operations while the council acts as a board of directors. A mayor-council government is directly tied to politics and public opinion, and the mayor is accountable to voters if he or she wants a second term.

If voters decide on a manager at the helm rather than a mayor, Granite Falls would become the fifth city in the county with that type of government. Leaders in other cities here have sought to move from mayors to managers, but none have been successful in more than 13 years, Fell said. Mayors are far more common than managers across the county and state.

About 80 percent of Washington’s 281 cities and towns have a mayor- council form of government, according to the nonprofit Municipal Research and Service Center. Snohomish County cities are on par with state numbers, with 16 of the 20 opting for a strong mayor. Snohomish, Mill Creek, Bothell and Mountlake Terrace have a manager-council government.

The Lynnwood City Council put a measure on the ballot in November 2010 that would have changed the city from a mayor-council to a council-manager administration, but 56 percent of voters rejected it.

Voters in Marysville shot down a similar measure in 2002, as did Sultan voters in 2003.

When Golston ran for Granite Falls mayor in 2013, he made it clear he wanted to change the type of government.

Two of the city’s recent mayors ended their terms mired in controversy.

Haroon Saleem, who preceded Golston, was arrested after a confrontation with family at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; failed to pay rent on his restaurant, which was shut down and demolished; and clashed frequently with two former police chiefs, one of whom he fired and another who resigned amid misconduct allegations in part related to a drug bust outside of Saleem’s restaurant involving one of Saleem’s friends and supporters.

That friend was another ex-mayor, Floyd “Butch” DeRosia. DeRosia was convicted in 2011 of selling marijuana.

The idea of limiting the position’s power was based on past experiences, Golston said, though he didn’t name any former mayors.

“Prior to my administration, there had been a number of times where the city was put in an awkward situation because of the mayor,” Golston said. “I try to be nice about it and not point fingers.”

Most mayors have good intentions, he said. However, not all of them have the expertise to run a city. He also feels it’s more difficult to hold a mayor accountable than a city manager. Recalling an elected official can be expensive and time consuming, with no guarantee of success. If a city manager fails to do the job or doesn’t follow ethical guidelines, the city council can fire them.

Golston urges voters to think about the city’s longterm needs.

“It’s not about how good a job I do or don’t do, it’s about the future,” he said. “I think it’s the right direction, but it’s really up to the voters.”

Councilman Tom FitzGerald was the lone no vote for changing the type of government. He’s not completely opposed to the idea, but he worries about the cost to the city.

Council members have an employee in mind who could take the job without the expense of recruiting and vetting candidates, but that won’t always be the case. Seeking out a manager and paying a competitive salary would be expensive, he said. The council has not yet decided on a pay range for the position.

“With the strings particularly tight on the budget, we’ve wanted to be thrifty,” FitzGerald said. “Obviously there has been some history with some mayors whose decisions haven’t been popular, but I think saying that we might have a mayor in the future who maybe isn’t qualified isn’t enough of a reason.”

City Administrator Brent Kirk, who also is the public works director, likely would become the city’s first manager if the measure passes. There are pros and cons to either form of government, he said.

City staff are planning public meetings in the coming months where people can learn more.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439;

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