Snohomish ponders the complexity of changing its government

SNOHOMISH —The transition to a strong-mayor form of government in Snohomish is tricky business.

That much became clear Monday night when the Snohomish City Council began considering changes that it likely must make.

With a ballot recount now in progress, the council decided not to rush it. The meeting highlighted just how complex orchestrating the changes might be.

All decisions about the change — including moving forward on a special election, the likely salary for the strong mayor and whether to create a new city administrator position — were tabled.

Another meeting was scheduled for Dec. 13 after the recount results become available. Final election results showed Proposition 2 winning by just nine votes. The measure was opposed by all seven members of the City Council.

“I do hope we can come together and not be a divided city; one that builds bridges, not walls,” Snohomish Mayor Karen Guzak said Monday evening, echoing a sentiment that was earlier expressed by one Snohomish man who spoke at the meeting.

This is new territory for council members.

If the proposition ultimately prevails, Guzak would no longer serve as mayor. The remainder of her four-year term would be spent as a council member.

To elect the new mayor would require a special election.

Washington state law mandates that both a primary and a run-off election be held, even if one person is running.

It’s an odd part of state law, city attorney Grant Weed said. “It’s a two-step process.”

If the election is scheduled, the primary likely would be Feb. 14. A run-off election likely would happen in late April.

Under that schedule, potential mayoral candidates would be asked to declare their candidacy between Dec. 19 and 21.

Guzak and Councilmember Derrick Burke have announced they are considering the opportunity to run.

But exactly what that strong-mayor position would look like, and how much it would pay, isn’t immediately clear.

Right now, the city’s day-to-day operations are the responsibility of Snohomish City Manager Larry Bauman. His salary is $146,067.

Among other things, Bauman presented the council with an ordinance that would allow the council to create a new city administrator position, somebody to work with the strong mayor much as he does now.

Bauman said creating that position was the least-pressing piece of the puzzle, but it was a topic many people wanted to talk about Monday evening.

“I don’t think we’re in a big hurry on this,” said Bill Betten, who lives outside city limits, but was one of the most-vocal supporters of changing Snohomish’s government.

Guzak said she was comfortable acting now. That way, potential mayoral candidates will know they have the option of hiring a city administrator to help with the workload.

It’s a placeholder, Councilmember Lynn Schilaty said.

Bauman conducted a survey to find the median annual salary for city administrators in cities about the same size as Snohomish.

Results showed that the median salary for city administrators in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties is $152,808. The median statewide salary is $125,724.

Bauman recommended the higher salary, citing that the cost of living is higher in the central Puget Sound counties than in other areas of the state.

He also conducted a survey of strong-mayor salaries. Based on the results, he suggested an annual $18,000 salary. That’s about the same as the mayor of Gig Harbor in Pierce County is paid.

Betten and others said that was not enough to support a family.

“The $18,000, I think, is going to chase people away,” Betten said. “We don’t know if we’re going to have a mayor or city administrator. We’re getting ahead of ourselves.”

Burke said the pay is not why people run for city government.

“People do it because they believe in it,” he said.

Some mayors in smaller cities decide to work part time so they can take on a second job to make financial ends meet, Bauman said.

As the discussion continued into the late evening, some in attendance acknowledged they were having a difficult time understanding how all the pieces fit together.

At one point, the council was asked whether Snohomish could embark on a statewide hunt for mayoral candidates.

The same speaker said he wanted the best out there. He hoped the best was in Snohomish, but if not, he thought the mayor should be recruited from elsewhere.

He was told that state law requires a mayor to be a city resident for at least one year.

If Proposition 2 becomes law, the city will need to change how it governs itself almost overnight.

“It wasn’t the council’s idea to operate this way,” Guzak said.

Caitlin Tompkins: 425-339-3192;

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