What’s the big deal on code cities?

I’ve been following Port Orchard’s efforts to become a non-charter code city since late March, when it was brought up as an aside to a city council conversation about the relative merits of a city manager versus strong mayor model. The code city classification has nothing to do with strong mayors or city managers, so maybe people got confused.

I followed the code city issue through the presentation stage and the hearing stage and finally the stage at which the council actually decided to start the process to become a code city. At each stage, I’d explain the story to co-workers and watch their eyes glaze over, as yours may be doing right now.

What at first blush seemed like a relatively simple story became complicated for a cluster — and I use this term in only the most polite context — of reasons. What should have been a “glance” became a short story, what should have been a short story became a long story, and what should have been a wrap-up became a long, tortuous and emotional story.

And yet “code city” doesn’t exactly say “read this” like bikini baristas or reports of a giant candy bar on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

These days, when I walk over to my editors with another code city story on my list, I may as well have a stinking albatross around my neck.

So, what’s the big deal on code cities? Here it is: They can do anything not prohibited by state law, unlike second class cities that can only do what is allowed by law.

Huh? Yeah, I get that a lot.

“It sounds like a nuanced difference, but it’s not,” said Poulsbo Councilman Ed Stern.

Poulsbo has been a code city as far back as anyone can remember, according to Stern, now in his fourth term.

Port Orchard right now is a second class city, no disrespect meant. It’s just a way the state has of defining a city based on its population and types of government. Other cities Port Orchard’s size can and have become code cities. Of the roughly 200 eligible Washington code city cities, 189, including Poulsbo, have made the switch.

Stern said being a code city has worked well for his town. For example, Poulsbo wants to create a broadband utility. Back in the mid-20th Century, when code cities became allowed under Washington State law, there was no such thing as broadband. But look at Poulsbo go. It doesn’t mean they’re ramming it down residents’ throats, Stern said. The public process still applies — meetings, hearings, public votes … elections if you don’t like what goes on at meetings.

Being a code city makes Poulsbo just a little more nimble, puts “another tool in the toolbox,” said Stern. Rather than playing mother-may-I with the state, code city officials simply need to make sure whatever they do isn’t against the law.

But what if you believe your city government is inclined to backroom deals? That’s another kettle o’ fish, Stern said.

“If you have problems trusting your council or mayor that’s an altogether different question than your city having available to it the widest array of tools to represent the public interest,” Stern said. “Do you trust these bastards or not? I understand. That’s a different issue from retaining freedoms.”

Stern presumably was speaking in hypothetical terms and not dissing himself or his fellow Kitsap officials.

In Port Orchard, those who signed a petition to put the code city question on the ballot (a moot point since the city scrapped the idea … for now) may mistrust their government. Some at Tuesday’s meeting said they just want more information.

Petition organizers Gil and Kathy Michael said the nearly 500 people who signed the petition had not a clue that the city was marching toward reclassification. Even Tim Matthes, running for mayor, and Ben Pinneo running for council, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, seemed to be newcomers to the whole discussion.

This despite discussion of the issue at a minimum of three meetings or work study sessions, two public hearings and a public vote of the council in late May to set the reclassification process in motion (subject to challenge by petition). This despite the issue being listed on agendas available on the city’s website and notices of the hearings in local media, plus articles in local newspapers and online.

People felt left out of the loop, petition organizer Gil Michael said, “In the past 3-and-a-half years, I think there’s been an active effort to decrease citizen awareness.”

Michael, a member of the city’s planning commission and a fairly regular council meeting attendee, cited, for example, the switch from BKAT coverage of city council meetings to video coverage, with videos posted on the city’s website.

Port Orchard residents may well have felt out-of-the-loop. To stay on top of the code city issue, one would have needed to actually read agendas (available online or by request at 360-876-4407), read public notices in local newspapers and attended meetings (preferably paying attention at least most of the time).

I know, I know. You’re busy. You’ve got places to go, things to do. But you’re in luck. That’s what the E.W. Scripps Company hires me to do. Your other best bet is Port Orchard resident and city council groupie Gerry Harmon, who shows up faithfully in her tan van parked in front of city hall and walks to the microphone to have her say. I’m pretty sure Harmon could slam dunk most members of the press as far as council meeting attendance goes. But E. W. Scripps doesn’t hire Gerry to write articles, so you’re stuck with me … and other local publications.

This would mean, of course, that you’d have to place a certain amount of trust in … the media. That may be a scary thought. But, hey, I advocate a healthy skepticism on everyone’s part, and thoughtful comments are welcome on all of the Kitsap Sun’s stories. Many heads are better than one, as the saying goes.

Bryan Petro, a Port Orchard real estate agent, at Tuesday’s meeting suggested the timing and execution of the Michaels’ petition was politically motivated. I’ll let you readers be the judge of that.

I will share one headline for today’s story that was floated, but, alas, rejected, “Thanks to couple Port Orchard, remains a second class city.”

Chris Henry, local government/South Kitsap reporter

4 thoughts on “What’s the big deal on code cities?

  1. Unfortunately, 99.9% of the people don’t care about this stuff — or any of the other stuff that goes on at “City Hall.” They only care when it affects them negatively. They do a bit of research, they call their Council Member or Commissioner or Legislators. They get all huffy. Then, something happens or doesn’t happen and they go back to living their lives.

    Interesting post, but…

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for the explanation of the differences between a ‘code city’ and a ’2nd class city’. Since I do not live in PO it will not affect me.

    Just a small question though.
    Was the plan scraped, or scrapped?

  3. GREAT explanation, Chris – and laugh “These days, when I walk over to my editors with another code city story on my list, I may as well have a stinking albatross around my neck.”

    At least it wasn’t a cat, dog, horse, cow, Blue Heron or a “Boy Named Sue”.

  4. If the majority of cities presented with the option to switch have done so without issue, that makes information on this issue even easier to research. As noted above, this was aired publicly on numerous occasions. The protest and accusation against the City Clerk do appear to be politically motivated.

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