In our view: No Change Needed

Part-time mayor works fine for Vancouver; plenty of reasons to support status quo



Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt’s suggestion that the city might be better off with a full-time mayor would carry more clout if he had said so five months before he took office instead of five months after.

In his defense, Leavitt has not officially announced any movement in that direction. He recently said changing the city to a full-time mayor “is not something I’m intending to personally propose.” Good idea. “But the demands of the job are really full time. At some point in the future, I think it’s worth a conversation … about what the responsibilities and requirements of a mayor of a city as large as Vancouver are.”

We wouldn’t rule out reviewing such a recommendation in the distant future, but for now, any such talk appears to be a solution in search of a problem, and here’s why:

Few members of the public seem to be advocating such a change. This type of recommendation typically comes only from politicians, often based on the fact that they’re overworked in a job for which they yearned so feverishly that they placed themselves before the voters to get it.

Any step toward a full-time mayor might ultimately lead to a mayor who is more involved in day-to-day operations of the city. That would be a mistake. Vancouver’s council-manager form of government works well, largely because of the leadership of an unelected city manager with immense expertise (Pat McDonnell), who consistently nails down rave reviews in his performance evaluations.

In cities with strong-mayor forms of government, municipal management often becomes entangled in the hazards of petty politics. Better to leave city management to the city manager, and leave politics to the part-time councilors. Remember, too, that the full-time city manager directs full-time department heads, all nonpoliticians with valuable knowledge.

If Vancouver gets a full-time mayor, we’ll give you three guesses what the next suggested change might be. That’s right, full-time city councilors, all of whom would rightfully expect full-time pay. And in a city such as Vancouver, which is trying to crawl out from under a massive budget deficit, to even think about increasing pay for politicians is ludicrous.

Leavitt correctly posits that more pay would lure more candidates. “There’s no doubt that it’s a challenge to hold down the mayor’s position in Vancouver unless you’re retired or independently wealthy,” he said. That, though, didn’t keep Leavitt himself — a young, full-time civil engineer — from running for the office and winning. And even if Leavitt’s point is valid, we’ve seen no evidence in recent years to indicate retired or independently wealthy people cannot serve well.

What makes Vancouver’s city government work more smoothly than, say, Portland’s is that the politicians stay out of the unelected experts’ way. And if the politicians feel overworked, well, as city councilor Larry Smith said, “Tim went into the job knowing what the job was about. He wasn’t a new council member.”

Smith’s council colleague Jeanne Harris said, “It’s OK to keep (the full-time mayor topic) on the table. We’re a big city and we’re going to be even bigger.” We won’t quarrel with that, but until someone proves that any Vancouver mayor is not doing a good job, let’s not be too concerned about how hard they’re working. As the trail boss told the drover, it was a dusty trail when you signed on back at the corral.