In Our View: Put Experts in Charge

Municipalities are best run by trained managers, not politicians

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For many good reasons, three of the four largest cities in Clark County (Vancouver, Battle Ground and Ridgefield) have highly trained experts — and not politicians — running day-to-day municipal operations. Some members of the Washougal City Council are wisely considering a conversion to that same superior system.

More specifically, they're thinking about putting such a proposition before voters this fall. It's good to give the voters a choice, and our opinion through the years has generally been supportive of putting an unelected city manager in charge of daily administration.

Managing a city is too important — with too many stakeholders — to allow distractions such as fulfilling campaign promises or wooing voters in advance of the next election.

These are municipal CEOs; most of them have little interest in politics.

Washougal's City Council will hold a hearing next Monday to discuss the possible change and will decide by July 8 whether to put the matter on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

In a Sunday Columbian story by Tyler Graf, Washougal City Councilor Jennifer McDaniel succinctly described the wisdom behind any such change: "The council-manager system, as far as my notes and the little bit of research I've done, seems to provide a more stable, less political, much more professional system of government." Who wouldn't want those three attributes accentuated by a city government?

Our research shows that, among the 7,400 or so largest cities in the country, about half use council-manager forms of governments, including Vancouver, Battle Ground and Ridgefield. Vancouver's mayor, for example, has no more voting clout than any other city council member.

And about half of those 7,400 cities use the strong-mayor system (also known as the mayor-council form), including Washougal, Camas and La Center. Usually in these cities, city administrators provide oversight and guidance on public policy, but the mayor is head of the city and can veto council decisions.

Vancouver is a good example of how well a city can be run with a city manager in charge. City Manager Eric Holmes, formerly city manager in Battle Ground, has more than two decades' experience in public administration; a bachelor's degree in planning, public policy and management; and a master's degree in public administration. As we pointed out in an editorial last year, Holmes' predecessor held the post for 10 years and consistently drew rave reviews on his performance evaluations.

Granted, neither form of city government is perfect. Ridgefield experienced turmoil with a former city manager a few years ago. Likewise, other cities in Clark County have had deep divisions created by problems with strong mayors. But city managers are less dependent than mayors on fragile and fickle local politics.

City managers often transcend numerous mayoral terms. They do this not through political persuasion but through executive merit.

That's why we like the idea of giving Washougal voters a choice.