SNOHOMISH — The mayor here works in a spiritual space — an altar turned into an office, colored with shades of red and neutral tones. Not far from City Hall, her personal workspace boasts curious artifacts and artwork on a stage, tucked behind the parted cream curtains that separate it from the 118-year-old sanctuary on Avenue B.
Karen Guzak is a renaissance woman, mindfully taking on pursuits as a politician, artist, entrepreneur and yoga teacher.
During her seven years at the helm, the city’s part-time mayor has worked her distinct charm, effervescent energy and warm way with people to make connections and build close ties in the town of about 9,400.
Now, there’s an effort underway that could bring more power to her position, but she doesn’t want more clout.
“I’m fine being the weak mayor,” Guzak said. “I have the time and energy to go to meetings and be a spokeswoman for Snohomish.”
A group is gathering signatures on a petition aimed at changing the style of government the city has had since 1973. If approved, a so-called “strong mayor” would be elected to run Snohomish with its $20.9 million annual budget, instead of leaving the day-to-day operation to a hired city manager.
Despite Guzak’s staunch opposition, some supporters of the switch hope she’ll run if they’re successful.
“I have nothing but respect for her. She has a true passion for this community,” said Bill Betten, a Snohomish truck driver leading the effort. “We may butt heads on a number of issues but at the end of the day, I hope I can call her my friend.”
The city joins Mill Creek, Bothell, Mountlake Terrace and Granite Falls in having “strong city managers” or council-manager governments. Generally, that means a hired city manager handles business as the chief executive officer. Policy is set by the council, which selects the mayor from its members.
Betten and fellow supporters want Snohomish to shift to strong mayor or mayor-council government. Most of Washington’s 281 cities, including all but five in Snohomish County, have elected mayors. Typically, they preside over council meetings, voting only to break a tie.
At least 218 registered Snohomish voters would have to sign the petition to get the proposed change on the November ballot. County Elections Manager Garth Fell estimates it would cost about $5,000.
If voters approve, a mayor would be likely be elected in early 2017 to carry out council policies, usually with help from a hired city administrator.
If more than two candidates run in 2017, a February primary and an April election would be required. Fell estimates the cost would be between $55,000 and $105,000, depending on whether a primary is needed. The pricetag could drop significantly if other measures are on the February or April ballots, he said.
Betten wants to oust City Manager Larry Bauman from the $142,853-a-year job he’s held since 2002. The council has failed to hold him accountable, he said. A strong mayor would be paid an annual salary, instead of the $725-per-month stipend Guzak receives, plus a city administrator would likely be hired.
Under the current system, the elected leaders evaluate the city manager’s performance annually. The council has bumped Bauman’s pay 10 times in 14 years but can fire him if they’re ever unsatisfied.
Right now, it’s easy to get rid of a city manager. But the recall process to get rid of an elected mayor is far more arduous, Guzak said. She prefers the balance of political and administrative power under the current system.
Morgan Davis, the city’s best-known critic, faults Guzak for “flip-flopping” on issues and “rubber stamping” whatever Bauman wants. He’s pitching in on the petition effort.
The mayor and city manager acknowledged that they do have a bit of a good cop, bad cop routine going.
Guzak is committed to getting the best results for the people she represents, Bauman said. Meanwhile, he has to run the city by the book, often making unpopular calls.
Guzak, who considers herself a pragmatic progressive, admits that she sometimes changes her mind too. She said she listens to constituents, considers their input and makes decisions accordingly. For example, she initially supported marijuana shops but later voted against allowing them in the city after hearing outcry from opponents.
Guzak jokes that her part-time mayor job offers opportunities for “spiritual growth,” testing her patience, tolerance and kindness. She was elected to her fourth two-year term as mayor in January, where she presides over council meetings with an hourglass full of pink sand.
Davis said he gave the mayor the three-minute timer because he got tired of being interrupted during his vociferous public comments. He has an timer with pink sand too.
The 73-year-old rarely misses a chance to weigh in and is often the lone commenter. “I’m a boatrocker, a muckraker, a hellraiser, whatever you want to call it,” he said.
Davis comes to the podium prepared with his opinions scribbled on a yellow legal pad. After more than a decade of regularly bellowing at the council, he’s learned that it takes about three minutes to get through three pages.
“You’re out of sand Mr. Davis, you’re out of sand,” Guzak often barks, cutting him off mid-rant as time runs out.
Usually, Guzak has a way of calming people angry with the city. She speaks evenly, making her points clear.
Guzak worked the chambers before calling the council’s Feb. 2 meeting to order. She greeted more than a dozen people, explaining how public comments work. “We don’t bite,” she told a nervous first-timer.
Her tireless energy, diplomatic approach and work on several regional boards has made her well-known among area public officials, business leaders and nonprofits. She’s served on the council since 2008.
As a result, she has more influence than most small-town mayors.
Guzak is the vice-chairwoman of the Snohomish County Tomorrow committee. She’s the co-chair of both the Eastside Rail Corridor Regional Advisory Council and the Highway 9 Coalition. Her face has become familiar to lawmakers in Olympia too.
Between meetings, Guzak tools around town in her lime-green Ford Fiesta. She frequents downtown shops, picking up litter as she walks along First Street. She made her home in the heart of the city, where she lives in an 1888 church with her partner, Snohomish author and historian Warner Blake.
The two artists were living in Seattle when Blake scheduled a “meeting” over Indian food with Guzak almost 25 years ago. Upon arrival, she found out the “meeting” was to discuss whether they should date.
It was bold but it worked. A year later in 1993, Guzak bought the historic St. Michael’s Catholic Church in a bankruptcy sale. She and Blake had it renovated and painted pink, soon dubbing it the “church of perpetual chores.”
The couple filled their home with vintage furniture, antiques, art and eclectic artifacts, such as the string puppets that hang in the sanctuary. It’s a mix of old and new styles, vibrant and earthy colors and shiny and dull objects.
“It came together one piece at a time,” Guzak said. “It’s like making an artwork.”
The sunny sanctuary houses Guzak’s creative studio Angel Arms Works. The couple put their own spin on a space that once served as Catholic confessional before Baptist owners made it into a bathroom. Now, it has a sign that says, “Art” and “Science,” in red lights.
The couple likes to entertain, hosting parties, concerts and get togethers. They drink wine, watch movies and read books for fun.
Guzak also enjoys gardening. She decorated her lawn and garden with leftovers from her public artwork. There’s scrap-metal sculptures from a South Seattle Community College project and a mini-sundial like the one she designed for Redmond Town Center.
Whether she’s gardening or governing, Guzak said, she’s guided by the ethical precepts of yoga. In 2003, she opened Yoga Circle Studio on Pine Avenue.
Artwork and warmly-colored cloths brighten the spacious studio. Fabrics in shades of red, green, gold and orange line the walls at each end of the airy room. They’re draped from the ceiling into two canopies, hanging over the softly-lit space.
Students position colorful mats around an elevated podium where Guzak stands, grounding herself by pressing her bare feet into the hardwood floor.
She contorts her long, lean body and holds poses. At 76, her strength and flexibility puts students who aren’t half her age to shame.
“You can get further on a smile than almost anything,” she said, holding a pose as she reminded her class to breathe through it on sunny Tuesday morning earlier this month.
Guzak checked each student’s form, gently using her hands to guide corrections as needed. She encouraged them to modify the restorative movements to suit their bodies.
“We don’t suffer,” she said. “This is all about feeling alive.”
Guzak opened her chest proudly, telling students to keep their hearts open as instrumental music played softly.
During meditation, she teaches yogis to quiet the monkeys in their minds by acknowledging and kindly dismissing them without judgement. Deeply inhaling and exhaling, she has students use breath and sensations in the body to stay present.
“Yoga calls us to this harmony of mind, body and spirit,” she said. Beyond the physical and emotional benefits, it’s a spiritual practice of kindness, truth, open-heartedness, gratitude, respect, love and compassion, Guzak said.
Elaine McClain said she goes to the studio instead of church on Sundays because the spiritual aspects resonate with her. The 64-year-old does yoga to cope with caring for her husband of 41 years. Jerry McClain, 81, is known for singing on First Street.
Until about eight months ago, Elaine said, she couldn’t afford classes or leave Jerry, who has Alzheimer’s disease, alone while she practiced. Guzak offered a deal, giving Elaine a price break and allowing Jerry to nap on a mat or sit next to her in the studio.
“It’s a sigh of relief,” she said.“I needed to calm my inner spirit.”
Guzak carries karma and sage wisdom of the practice into her life outside the studio too.
“She’s a wonderfully lovely, kind person from her soul,” her friend Mary Pat Connors said.
After an illustrious career as a painter and public artist in Seattle, Guzak settled into small town life in 2000. A book that details her artwork includes photographs of works she created for the King County Council chambers and art on glass inside Seatac International Airport.
She was also a project manager, turning warehouses into space for artists. She has done commissioned work with her 50-year-old son, Chris Guzak, of Kirkland. She also has a daughter, Lauren Guzak, 47, of San Diego.
As an artist, the native of Boulder, Colorado, learned to work with diverse people. That skill served her in sprucing up Snohomish with projects, such as having salmon designs put on the sewer station.
“Everywhere I look I want to go ‘ahh that’s beautiful,” she said.
Guzak’s vision for the future of Snohomish is to preserve its history and promote culture. She wants to see growth, park improvements and a stable financial future.
Snohomish has faced turbulent times too. With Guzak at the helm, the city in 2013 tried to charge homeowners thousands of dollars in building fees it failed to collect from developers. Later, the city changed course, let the homeowners off the hook and recouped some of the money from builders, who made the mistake in the first place.
Despite the effort underway that could add responsibility to the part-time position, the yogi mayor has a simple strategy for seeing Snohomish through. It’s the same mantra she shares with her students.
“Remember to breathe,” she said.
Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; email@example.com.
By Amy Nile