Opinion

Politics in Focus | Your city government structure and you | Rich Elfers

Do you know the type of city government you have in your city? Is it council-manager, or mayor-council? Never heard of these differences? These governmental forms are important because each operates differently.

Of the cities in the reach of The Courier-Herald, only Covington and Maple Valley have a council-manager form of government. The council appoints a city manager who runs the city on a day-to-day basis. There is a mayor, but that person is a member of the council, elected by the council. The mayor only presides at council meetings and does the ceremonial duties for the city.

The rest of the cities have mayor-council forms of government. Let’s focus on this form to help you understand how it runs. Knowing how your city government works is important because in order to get things done, you must understand its structure.

The mayor in these cities is the executive, voted into office directly by the constituents. A mayor has extensive powers to govern. The mayor appoints a city manager who runs the city on a day-to-day basis. She hires the city manager and the department heads such as police, fire and public works with the approval of the council. These heads may be fired without council approval, however.

The city council’s job is to act as the legislature. Members vote on laws called ordinances. In cities of more than 5,000 people there are seven members on the council. Only Black Diamond has a five-member council due to its size. (It may be changing its governmental structure to a council-manager form due to the disputed planned building development.)

There are also resolutions. They are different from ordinances because they are statements of intent, not laws like ordinances. Resolutions are formal documents voted on by the council. They are meant for the council to give direction to the city administration.

Resolutions do not carry the power of law, nor do they require two public readings in two council meetings with the opportunity for constituent input (as ordinances do) before they are voted on. An example of a resolution was the Enumclaw council decision to end the equestrian theme for the Expo Center.

The mayor and her staff create the city budget. It is then studied and discussed by the council which makes changes as it sees fit. Usually these discussions occur in the fall of each year. The mayor can set direction for the city, but it’s the council that has to approve that direction. In actuality, most power resides with the council, not the mayor, because it has the final say regarding where the city is going and how projects will be paid for.

If you want to bring about change in the city, the most effective way is to take a two-fold approach: First, go before the council during the public comment period and state your views. The better organized and the more articulate you are, and the bigger the group you represent, the more influence you will have on the council.

Persistence in your goals is also mandatory. This can be done through phone calls and emails, and regular attendance at committee meetings. The greater the persistence and patience, the more likely you will succeed. Bringing about governmental change is a long and laborious process, and it is meant to be to get the best results.

Be careful, though. Angry, emotional comments or letters tend to turn off the council rather than help your cause. Trying to bully the council or the administration is also counterproductive. It’s better to be as rational, logical and reasoned as possible. Citing examples of how other cities have done things is an effective way to convince them.

Secondly, convince the mayor that your ideas will benefit the city. Having a clear plan with mayoral support is very important. And having a large group of constituents supporting a plan helps the mayor attain her goals.

Since most cities have the strong mayor-council form of government, it is vitally important to understand how it works and how you should act to bring about change in your city. As I have stated before, it only takes a few dedicated and organized people to affect the direction of a city. The real power of government resides in an active and involved citizenry. If we don’t like the way the government is acting, the real burden is upon us, the voters, to bring about change.

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