Who Controls The Future Of Yakima City Government?
This is part opinion based on experience, part speculation, part thinking out loud and my intent is to see if you, when presented with these thoughts and information, reach the same kind of conclusion that I have. Meaning, I would really like some feedback on this.
Full disclosure, I was on the Yakima City Council when the ALCU and a federal judge changed our election system. I chose not to run for the remaining two years of the four to which i was duly elected. But I still care a great deal about our city and I am concerned about the way the Yakima City Council operates. The fears I had, and voiced, during the long legal battle with the ACLU over redistricting have all come to pass in the last few years. As a result, I now believe we need a change in our government structure to help provide another layer of checks and balance and accountability for the voters in Yakima.
To understand where we are right now you need a historical reminder. It will take a moment or two to explain but it's important to know in order to accurately assess what's happening today.
In February of 2011 Yakima voted on the question of changing the city's form of government from a council/manger system, which we had then and still have now, to an elected mayor/council system. Basically, the difference between the two is that under the current system, council members chose among themselves who will serve as the ceremonial mayor and then the council hires a city manager to handle the day to day operations of the city. Under a strong or elected mayor system, the mayor is elected by the voters and serves as the day to day administrator or they hire an assistant to handle day to day operations. The council still develops and presents policy issues but the mayor has some influence and veto capability - it's not unlike the elected congress and the elected president.
The timing of that election is important to note as it was the occasion of City Manager Dick Zais's departure after 30 years on the job as City Manager. Some in the community, lead by newspaperman Bruce Smith, felt that council was too easily controlled by the unelected Dick Zais and that a future top executive who controlled what Smith thought was a "weak council" would be accountable directly to the voters.
There are two ways to get such a measure on the ballot. The council can vote to do it with 4 votes -or- a citizen can run a petition signature gathering campaign. Such campaigns are time consuming, difficult and costly --which is important to remember. So in 2011, Dick Zais was gone or going and council had a question on which to act. Would it be possible for council recruit a suitable city manager replacement for Zais with the specter of a potential system change hanging over the city? Council decided they needed the answer ASAP and voted to put it on the February ballot. I opposed the system change but voted for the February election. I opposed the system change because at that time, ALL council members were ultimately elected by the community at large, so the voter leverage/accountability was built in to the system.
The election was held in February and more than 14-thousand votes were cast, and the proposition to change the system failed by about 750 votes. Tony O'Rourke was later hired as manager and life moved on under the old system. But Smith wasn't done with the idea of a change and if anything, O'Rourke turn as manager only made him more determined. The two did not get along and Smith still writes article mentioning him from time to time even though O'Rourke's been gone more than three years.
Jump ahead to 2016 and the ACLU case (don't get me started on the problems and details of that fiasco) in which the city was ultimately ordered to change from four districts and three at large positions - all voted on by the entire community - to a new system with seven districts where each council member was ONLY voted on by people in their district. Gone was any citywide accountability. And still missing was any managerial accountability to voters. So when the new council turned into the dysfunctional mess it has become, the citizens found they have no leverage or options for influence or change, other than to vote out their own district representative, who may or may not be part of the problem.
Sure, it is possible that some new council members with better interpersonal communication, manners, ego control, behavior, or whatever you want to call it, could do better as part of a team. In fact, three seats will get new members this fall and that will change the council dynamic. BUT, the system itself allows for character or composure issues to disrupt without the public having any means of influence on issues or behavior in the future. An elected mayor could change that. Which is why I now support the change to an elected mayor. An elected mayor could problem solve, referee, veto, run the meetings with decorum and respect, etc. all as a separately elected and independent entity, and thus help keep a lid on a district system,that by its very nature, promotes competition between council members for resources, services and attention.
In June , waiting in the wings we saw that the current City Manager Cliff Moore is looking to move on as a finalist in Flagstaff. Based on all that, a course of action becomes clear-at least to me. I see it this way.
In Mid-June , community frustration with council is peaking, social media is on fire, the Chamber of Commerce has a survey saying the majority of the business community is interested in something different for the good of business and community, etc., in addition, at least three new (inexperienced?) council members will be on board, and a few weeks ago when the idea of revisiting the change vote was being talked about in a number of different circles, there was a growing possibility of Cliff Moore leaving soon. (Now we know he is leaving Aug 20)
So, a few weeks back I was involved in a low key process and conversations suggesting a possible timeline of action with a short but doable window. Suggested in mid-June was the idea that the current council could have discussed the change of government at the July 2nd meeting and voted on it at the July 16th meeting. That would have been just enough time to get it to the Auditor by August 6th, which is the cutoff date to get it on the November 5th ballot. The community would vote then and assuming passage, mayoral candidates could start to campaign In November and an election could be held in May 2020. That puts the change in place in May 2020 so that means just 8 months with a fill-in manager working with a 40% neophyte council.
If the vote for change failed on a the November 5th election, the hunt for a new city manager would commence at the first of the year with the new council and that would push out 6 months or so in to 2020. Which would be comparable amount of time...possibly May/June 2020.
There wasn't enough time to gather signatures and force it to the ballot. If it was going to happen it would have to be a councilmanic decision. With respect to those on both sides of those conversation I won't name names but various council members were talked to about the prospect of a July vote to put it on the system change on November ballot and it seemed there might be that July doable window.
But then Bruce Smith reentered the picture at a meeting saying he and some others were working on it for some time - and that he didn't want to happen until next year. Why?
Smith said councilman Jason White would support it next year but he said he absolutely wouldn't touch it this year. Why not? (White his current "protege", as Rick Ensey was before him) Shortly after, other council members who seemed on board began to parrot the same line. "I would be interested, just not this year." What happened and again, why not? Smith indicated the people he thought would win in various races for open seats (because of his help?) would be interested in such a move --next year--as well.
So here is my issue. Why wait to next year? If it's the right thing to do, why not do it as soon as possible to lessen impact on the city? The council votes appeared to be ready, the community support appears to be there now, the city manager IS leaving, council action now would shorten the process, add clarity to the future of the council and staff of city government. But the window closed and the opportunity for expedited action was lost. The opening conversation didn't take place on July second, there won't be a vote on July 16th and it won't get on the November general election ballot.
So what's a new time line? A new council will be seated in January and Bruce Smith says he will have the council votes to put it on the ballot. That's certainly preferred to the hassle, time and expense of gathering signatures, remember. So Smith and "his council" will be ready then. What does that mean? If it plays out his way, the new council will be seated in January, not enough time for getting a system change proposition to the February ballot? So put the election on the ballot when --May special election or August primary? Again, assuming passage, that would mean the mayoral candidate would have 3 to 5 months to campaign, face election in November and be seated January 1, 2021, which is potentially 7 month longer than if the council had taken the July votes. That's possibly 15 months with a fill-in city manager in stead of 8?
If the vote for change failed on the May or August 2020 ballot, the hunt for a new city manager would commence then which again would mean a new city manager would likely not be on board for 5-7 months or again, around the first of 2021.
Ok, that's not the end of the earth and the city will survive the expanded timeline.
So what's the deal with Dave? What's the reason for all this history and speculation? I want the change for the good of the system and the voters of Yakima. Smith wants the change too. But the fast track time line doesn't concern him-in fact he is outright against it. Why? I hoped we could get it done this year, But Smith made sure it won't happen. Why? This is speculation but I wonder if he has a candidate in mind to run for the position and for whatever reason, that person will not be available til 2021. Why else hold off? Why the adamancy for next year only? Just thinking out loud here. It's all legal and above board. Just a smooth operator operating behind the scenes...possibly holding up a process impacting the city for his own convenience? Is that possible? But is that the way you want the process to operate in Yakima? Grow up Dave, that's politics! Or Is it, should it be, is that the open, above board, fairness you want?
Bottom line, I think an elected mayor system is a better and more effective system with a district only council. Why does it matter when we get it? Sooner is better and less disruptive....especially when there in no reason not to...or is there?
And frankly with Bruce Smith unofficially in charge of the process and timeline, and his professed potential control of council votes...it makes me suspicious about a free and unbiased council. After many years of dealing with him I confess I do not like or trust him. What gives him so much apparent influence? I get asked that a lot. One night at council, a member asked another in a moment of frustration "just who runs this city, Bruce Smith or us". That is still a very good question to ask.
I have no idea what happens going forward. Council will meet on the 16th and with Moore moving on they will have a conversation of some kind...so we shall see. I do care enough to have spent a lot of time thinking about it. These are my opinions, analysis and speculations.
Now, what are yours?