Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson (left) listens Monday night as City Councilwoman Anna Rohrbough discusses a proposed ballot measure to switch from a strong-mayor form of government to a manager-council arrangement. The council voted 4-2 to put the measure on the November ballot. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson (left) listens Monday night as City Councilwoman Anna Rohrbough discusses a proposed ballot measure to switch from a strong-mayor form of government to a manager-council arrangement. The council voted 4-2 to put the measure on the November ballot. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Mayor or manager? Mukilteo voters will decide in November

“Now is the time for us to be able to take control back of our town,” Councilman Scott Whelpley said.

MUKILTEO — Mayor or manager?

It’ll be up to voters this fall.

The Mukilteo City Council voted Monday in favor of putting a proposal on the November ballot to change the decades-old structure of a strong mayor form of government.

The measure passed 4-2.

“The leash is off the dog,” City Councilman Scott Whelpley said after the four-hour meeting.

Whelpley proposed the resolution for a manager-council form of government.

“Now is the time for us to be able to take control back of our town,” he said. “Remove the politics.”

The measure was supported by councilmembers Christine Cook, Anna Rohrbough and Steve Schmalz. Bob Champion and Richard Emery opposed the change. Sarah Kneller was absent.

“Let the residents decide,” Schmalz said.

Mukilteo, pop. 21,500, is run by a mayor who is the city’s CEO and ceremonial head, with a city administrator hired by the mayor.

If approved by voters, the day-to-day operation would be overseen by a city manager hired by the council. All staff would be hired by and report to the manager. The council would select one of its members to serve as mayor on a rotating basis.

If it passes, the change in governance would take effect the day the election is certified in late November.

Some 50 other cities and towns in Washington have manager-council governments, including Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace, Bothell and Granite Falls. The city of Snohomish went the other direction when voters in 2016, by a narrow margin, went from manager-council to a strong-mayor system.

Emery said a majority have strong mayors.

“There are 281 incorporated municipalities in the state,” he said. “It appears to work.”

Emery said politics are involved regardless if the mayor is weak or strong.

“That’s actually probably not a bad thing,” he said. “Dialogue and difference of opinion and the capacity to listen to each other is an important process in making better decisions.”

Emery and Champion also dissented in an August motion when the majority of City Council members delivered Gregerson a vote of no confidence in her leadership.

Whelpley, who favored the no-confidence vote, said the city needs a professional leader.

“Being elected doesn’t make you a leader,” he said. “You don’t become the subject matter expert because a bunch of people voted you in and now you can run a city.”

Gregerson said during a break that she doesn’t support the structure change. “And I also don’t believe it will pass. All of government has an element of politics. I think being mayor is a full-time job. We’re a growing city with a lot of big neighbors, big pressures, big projects.”

As it is now, the mayor’s job, which pays about $70,000 a year, is not defined.

“Legally, there is no job description. There’s no set hours,” Gregerson said. She also works as a manager for a company that prints yearbooks.

She is halfway through her second four-year term as mayor, with no plans to run again.

She and Rohrbough are both running for a seat on Snohomish County Council, which pays nearly $127,000.

Councilmembers in Mukilteo are paid $6,000 annually, with the president earning $6,500.

Emery and Whelpley have filed to run for the same council seat. Schmalz and Cook are not seeking another council term.

Monday’s meeting drew a packed room. Most were there for a neighborhood parking matter and left after three hours.

Roughly 10 people remained when the mayor vs. manager issue finally came up around 10:30 p.m.

Glen Pickus, a Mukilteo resident since 1990, supports the change.

“Every single administration has been at odds with its council, some worse than others. The current system isn’t working,” he said.

He cited the ballot timing as perfect.

“This November you have four contested City Council seats. Voter turnout will be high,” he said.

“You certainly don’t want to wait a few years and have it coincide with the mayor’s race in 2021, because then what kind of candidates would you get to run?”

Brian Kirk and his daughter Eliza voiced support for keeping a strong mayor.

“I think that it removes a critical role that the citizens in Mukilteo play in the politics in our city,” said Eliza, who turns 18 in the fall and will vote in her first election. “Having a hired city manager instead of the mayor removes the people from being able to make decisions.”

Her dad also voiced concerns, saying it removes “important checks and balances” from the system of government.

The measure will appear on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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