LETTER TO THE EDITOR: “Burien is hiring a new city manager – why you should care”
Burien Hires a New City Manager – Why You Should Care
Burien City Council has begun the process of selecting a new City Manager to replace Brian Wilson, who has resigned effective January 15, 2022. Burien has a council-manager form of government, which means that unlike a traditional mayor-council system with a “strong mayor”, the city manager, not the mayor, is the highest administrative professional in the city and is invested of executive power. Think the traditional mayor meets the corporate CEO, only with much more responsibility.
What the City Manager does/Why it matters:
The city manager is responsible for the regular operations of the city.
- Hiring and dismissal of municipal staff.
- Prepare and propose a draft budget to the board for discussion and amendment.
- Implement policy and ordinances directed by the council.
Council members have no formal role in the selection of 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 authorizes the hiring of staff and allocates funds through the budget. In addition, the city council passes ordinances and establishes general guidelines for the city manager and staff to follow. This separation of powers ensures that neither politicians nor professional staff can act unilaterally or in their own interests.
How the City Manager differs from the 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 the council and the 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 directors hiring an executive director to run an organization.
You may have noticed that in Burien’s Council-Manager system, a council member holds the title of “mayor”. However, this position could best be described as a chairman of a council 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 certain public events.
Advantages of a CM system:
While the Strong Mayor system is more common in the United States, nearly all newly incorporated cities have been incorporated with a Council-Manager system. This is partly because the Council-Manager system ensures competent and professional management of the city while allowing for greater accountability.
Elections are the cornerstone of our system of government, giving citizens agency and legitimacy to our public institutions. Elections allow us to determine who best represents the values and priorities of the community. However, the City Manager’s job is not to decide what the values of our community are, but rather to ensure that the city is run effectively and efficiently while respecting the values and priorities established by our elected officials. This is why the city manager is selected by the full 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 faces SOME responsibility in the form of regular municipal elections. This “responsibility” is limited to once every four years and often only allows voters to decide between the “lesser of two evils”. A city manager, however, is accountable to the full elected council (which staggered the elections and checks everyone’s individual power) every hour of every day of the week. In the event of a corrupt or poor performance by a city manager, the council can remove them immediately rather than waiting for the next election or subjecting voters to 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 managing complex organizations and a practical understanding of how our city government works. They must be flexible enough to respond to emerging priorities, yet stable enough to keep Burien on track. We would like to see someone who values:
- Collaboration – with staff, council, community, partners, neighboring towns and other stakeholders.
- Openness and transparency both in their work and in what is happening in the city
- Professionalism in their internal work as well as in the representation of Burien.
- Commitment to support our community and the rights guaranteed to all in the laws and Constitution of our nation.
Make yourself heard:
What expertise and qualities would you like 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 contacted by email. [email protected] or making public comments at any next city council. The next meeting is Monday, February 7 at 7 p.m.
–Austin Bell and Nancy Kick
ACLU Burien People Power
Links and attachments:
About the ACLU Burien People Power
The ACLU Burien People Power Team is part of the ACLU’s Grassroots Membership Mobilization Project. Through public speaking, training, letter writing, dialogue with public officials and public engagement, we affirm our American values of respect, fairness, justice and solidarity. In our actions, we support our community and the rights guaranteed to all in the laws and Constitution of our nation.
For more information, contact [email protected]or find us on Facebook @BurienPeoplePower.