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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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