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LETTER: ‘Can Burien Afford to Change Its Form of Government?’

Burien has an elitist form of government that allows the least amount of citizen participation as possible-the council/manager form. Less than 10% of the cities and towns in the U.S.A. have this form of government.

At the November 20, 2012 City Council meeting, Jack Block proposed that Burien allow its citizens an advisory vote on whether they wanted to change their form of government. Currently Burien has a council/manager form of government. The mayor is elected by the council members and not the citizens. This kind of mayor is titular and does jobs like ribbon cutting but does not lead the government of the city. The city is run by the city manager. Citizens have no voice in the hiring or firing of this person who is running their city. There are no checks and balances with this form of government; one branch runs the whole show.

The other form of government that Burien could adopt is the elected (strong) mayor where the mayor is the executive leader of the city and is elected by the people. In this form of government, checks and balances do exist (read this PDF on forms of government [1]). Council Person Clark who was running the November 20, 2012 Council meeting refused to allow Council Person Block’s measure to be voted on and walked out of that meeting. One of her major complaints was that it might be too expensive and would affect the new budget the Council had just passed. It is important to note that the Council passed the city’s budget much earlier than needed mainly for their own administrative convenience rather than because it was due. They wanted to start their holiday vacations early.

So how much does it cost to change the form of government? Federal Way changed to the strong (elected) mayor form of government in 2010. Federal Way is a city of 89,300 people, has its own police department and court system. They eliminated the city manager position and the elected mayor is paid $112,800 per year. The mayor has a full time management assistant just as the city manager previously had. The council has a part-time management assistant. The mayor selected not to fill the position of a chief administrator for the city and the city staff was re-configured. As a result, Federal Way has not experienced a significant change in staff costs in the budget related to this change in form of government.

Contrary to what Clark and several other council members have stated about costs, Burien could change its form of government without it having a significant impact on Burien’s budget. The budget is just a red herring issue that has been repeatedly put out by the city manager as well as some council members to maintain their status quo power hold on Burien city politics.

The majority of the council have deliberately put this issue aside, away from the vote or advice of the citizens. Reasons given are costs to the city and the need to study the issue. There was no significant change in costs to the city of Federal Way and no better recent history example to cite than what has happened there in the last couple of years. So these two reasons now appear to be nothing more than flimsy excuses and a delay tactic.

A change in form of government does not have to cost Burien’s citizens a great deal more money. Currently, Burien pays its city manager more than Federal Way’s elected mayor is paid. Burien citizens should have the opportunity to decide on what form of government they want. In an informal media poll, 74% of the respondents have indicated that they want a change in Burien’s government. Money is not really the issue here. Burien could afford to change its form of government and maybe it should.

– R.M. Delorm

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