Last summer, when my wife and I were on holiday, on a sunny Sunday morning, we chatted about another mayor, Cy Sun of Pacific, Wash. He’d recently fired Pacific’s police chief and locked the city clerk out of her office at city hall.
The mayor of the City of Milton introduced herself in the hotel lobby.
She said, “Hello, I’m Debra Perry. I’m the mayor of Milton. My city’s next to Pacific.”
She overheard me tell the story of Sun.
“Mayor Sigh,” Perry said.
She knew the lay of the land, a lot about office. “There are two kinds of municipal government, the mayor-council model and the council-manager. It depends on the city charter,” she said.
As a strong model mayor, Sun has the right to access city records. He’d been in office for several months. He feuded with planning, the police and the city council; endangered the city’s insurance by not filling department posts; and single-handedly came close to forcing Pacific — a city of more than 6,000 residents — into dissolution. His legal expenses have drained the city’s funds.
In April, the state Supreme Court ruled that the recall election could proceed.
On June 25, a recall election determines Sun’s fate. There was no shortage of signatures.
What can Seattle mayors learn from the story of Cy?
The eight candidates, including incumbent Mike McGinn, could all learn practical civics lessons that play out in Puget Sound’s small cities and towns.
Milton and Pacific are both strong-mayor municipalities with mayor-council charters; Seattle is one, too.
The power of Seattle mayors eroded over time, with the City Council increasing its role in administrative matters. This leads to cooperation and conflict among mayors and councils, as responsibilities of the city executive and legislature overlap.
In a strict, strong-mayor form, the mayor can ignore a city council.
A strong-model mayor can submit a budget to the council as a fait accompli, hire a city administrator and other staff without council approval — and fire them, too.
A weak-model mayor answers to the council on budgets, initiatives, agendas. A very weak-model mayor can’t hire a city manager. A really very weak-model mayor can’t veto anything the city council decides to do. A strong mayor, Perry told me, “Every mayor should have this sign on an office wall: ‘Why can’t I?’ Because you want to make things happen.”
Perry is a strong and accountable mayor; Sun is a strong mayor who’s being held accountable.
Small cities achieve influence by cooperating on common issues. For example, Milton, Fife and Edgewood have joined in an effort to stop service cuts to their cities by Pierce Transit and successfully gained representation on the Pierce Transit Board. These cities regularly cooperate on transportation and public-safety matters.
Sun’s downfall — and his city’s — came about through his personal arrogance. He was elected as a write-in, saying he’d fight “corruption.” In his last newsletter in May 2012, he described his city hall as “full of no good, rejected, seasoned bureaucrats — municipal loafers.”
This type of rhetoric may work in the Tea Party, but in a city, as its leader, it’s unwise to alienate yourself from your city workers. What cities need — and what Milton, Fife and Edgewood have — is good management.
The buzzword of this year’s Seattle mayor contest is “collaboration.” Every serious candidate uses it in interviews and public appearances. Yet, collaboration is only one tool in a leader’s resources for getting things done. The most important question we should ask those seeking the office in the 2013 mayor’s race is, “How will you manage the city?”
Just as people lined up to write-in Sun in 2011, so now are groups lining up behind candidates in Seattle. Housing advocates, homeless activists, business interests, wealthy progressives and Sonics fans are aligning themselves with those they deem closer to their own perspective. They are similar to those who elected Sun, who may have shared his supporters’ perspectives and prejudices but couldn’t manage a city.
Seattle doesn’t need a mayor who agrees with me or you. The city needs a leader who can cooperate with the legislative branch, work with the city attorney while maintaining control of police reform and who can make wise, impartial and sometimes-unpopular decisions that will affect city residents and city workers.
That isn’t a mayor who will play to a core constituency but one who will manage the city — delegating where necessary, yet taking responsibility.
So, as we examine this season’s Seattle candidates, we should consider which is a Cy Sun and which is a Debra Perry.
CRAIG THOMPSON is a longtime community activist. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.[[In-content Ad]]