[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a Letter to the Editor, submitted by a verified resident. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of The B-Town Blog, nor its staff:]

Burien is Hiring a New City Manager – Why You Should Care

The Burien City Council has begun the process of selecting a new City Manager to replace Brian Wilson, who resigned effective January 15, 2022. Burien has a Council-Manager form of government meaning that unlike a traditional Mayor-Council system with a “Strong Mayor,” the City Manager, not the Mayor, is the top administrative professional in the city and is vested with executive authority. Think traditional mayor meets corporate CEO, only with much more accountability.

What the City Manager Does/Why They Matter:
The City Manager is responsible for the regular operations of the city.

This includes:

    • Hiring and firing of city staff.
    • Preparing and proposing a draft budget to council to be debated and amended.
    • Implementing council directed policy and ordinances.

Council members have no official role in selecting city staff (other than the City Manager) and are not permitted to interfere with or attempt to personally direct staff members. However, the Council as a whole does authorize the hiring of staff and appropriates funding through the budget. Furthermore, the City Council passes ordinances and establishes broad policy guidelines for the City Manager and staff to follow. This separation of powers ensures that neither politicians nor professional staff are able to act unilaterally or in their own self-interest.

How City Manager Differs From Mayor (see chart below):
Unlike a mayor in the Mayor-Council system (Seattle, Kent, Federal Way), a city manager is not publicly elected, has no veto power, and can be removed at any time. The relationship between council and mayor in a Mayor-Council system can be compared to that of Congress and the President, or the state legislature and a governor. In the Council-Manager system, the relationship is more like a board of trustees who hire an executive director to run an organization.

You may have noticed that in Burien’s Council-Manager system, a council member does hold the title of “Mayor.” However, this position could be better described as a Council President and has none of the executive or veto powers associated with a traditional mayor. Instead they preside over council meetings and can be expected to play a ceremonial role representing the City as a whole at some public events.

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: 'Burien is hiring a new City Manager – why you should care' 1

Benefits of a C-M System:
While the Strong Mayor system has been more common in the U.S., almost all newly incorporated cities have been incorporated with a Council-Manager system. This is in part because the Council-Manager system ensures a competent and professionally-run city while allowing for greater accountability.

Elections are the cornerstone of our system of government giving agency to citizens and legitimacy to our public institutions. Elections allow us to determine who best represents the values and priorities of the community. However, the job of the City Manager is not to decide what our community’s values are, but rather to ensure that the city is managed effectively and efficiently while adhering to the values and priorities set by our elected officials. That is why the City Manager is selected by the entire Council and evaluated on merit and relevant experience, rather than ability to get elected.

While it is true that a traditional Strong Mayor in a Mayor-Council system does face SOME accountability in the form of regularly scheduled mayoral elections. This “accountability” is limited to once every four years and often only permits voters to decide between the ‘lesser of two evils’. A city manager however, is accountable to the whole of the elected council (who have staggered elections and check each other’s individual power) every hour of every day of the week. In the event of a corrupt or subpar performance on the part of a city manager, the council can remove them immediately rather than wait for the next election or put the voters through a complicated and costly recall process.

What it Takes to be a Good City Manager:
We believe that a good city manager will be someone who has experience running complex organizations and a working understanding of how our city government operates. They should be flexible enough to respond to emerging priorities, while stable enough to keep Burien on track. We would like to see someone who values:

  1. Collaboration – with staff, council, community, partners, neighboring cities, and other stakeholders.
  2. Openness and transparency in both their work and what is going on in the city
  3. Professionalism in their internal work as well as in representing Burien.
  4. Commitment to support our community and the rights guaranteed to all in the laws and Constitution of our nation.

Let your voice be heard:
What expertise and qualities do you want to see in our new City Manager? This is one of the most important decisions our current Council will make, and now is the time to let them know what you want to see in your new City Manager. Council can be reached by email [email protected] or by making public comment at any upcoming City Council meeting. The next meeting is Monday, February 7 at 7 p.m.

– Austin Bell and Nancy Kick
ACLU Burien People Power

Links and attachments:

About ACLU Burien People Power
The ACLU Burien People Power team is part of the ACLU’s grassroots member-mobilization project. Through public speaking, trainings, letter writing, dialogue with public officials, and public engagement we affirm our American values of respect, equity, justice and solidarity. In our actions we support our community and the rights guaranteed to all in the laws and the Constitution of our nation.

For more information contact [email protected], or find us on Facebook @BurienPeoplePower.

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