Update, 5 p.m. Oct. 23: The Peninsula Daily News is reporting that former Port Orchard Mayor Lary Coppola is resigning from the North Peninsula Building Association, where he has been executive director since August. Coppola recently commented in a Kitsap Sun story that he is happy in his new job and has no interest in a city manager job that would become available if Port Orchard’s Proposition 1 passes Nov. 5. This new information apparently changes at least the “happy with his job” part. I am working to verify this information and provide more details. — Chris Henry, reporter
The debate over Port Orchard’s Proposition 1 — the Nov. 5 ballot
measure to replace the mayor with a city manager — has a
contentious undercurrent mostly unspoken, but a couple of people
who oppose the idea have brought it up in public forums.
The City Council in January resurrected earlier discussion of a city manager and in July agreed to put the decision to voters.
If Prop 1 passes, the mayor’s position, held by Tim Matthes, would disappear. The council would appoint a city manager to run day-to-day operations, and they would choose an honorary mayor from among their number. (See a video with pro- and con- statements at the end of this post.)
“I firmly believe this is a political coup d’état,” anti-Prop 1 spokesman Nick Whittleton told the Kitsap Sun’s editorial board on Oct. 9. “That’s what’s really happening here, but you can’t say it out loud.”
Whittleton speculates Prop 1 proponents want to remove Matthes, elected to a four-year term in 2011. Whittleton, spokesman for Port Orchard Citizens for Responsible Government, clarified this was his opinion and not the group’s official position.
City Council candidate Eric Gonnason has repeatedly suggested Prop 1 is a plan to put former mayor Lary Coppola back in city hall, this time as manager. He believes a majority of the council is aligned with Coppola, who lost to Matthes by a five-vote margin.
Whittleton and Gonnason’s statements stir collective memories of the divisive 2011 mayoral campaign. But Coppola says he doesn’t want the city manager the job, and Prop 1 advocates have said the proposal is not a slam on Matthes.
“I don’t want to make this issue about Mayor Matthes,” said Rob Putaansuu, the councilman who led the charge to get Prop 1 on the ballot. “It’s really just about moving the city forward.”
Voters can look at recent history of the Prop 1 ballot measure and decide for themselves what’s relevant.
Former mayor not interested in job
Gonnason, challenging incumbent Jerry Childs, suggested at a forum hosted Oct. 3 by the League of Women Voters of Kitsap County that Coppola would be a shoe-in for city manager.
Not so, says the pro-Prop 1 camp.
Fred Olin, spokesman for Citizens for Professional Government, at the forum challenged the assertion that, in Olin’s words, “this is a ploy to return the former mayor to office.”
“In fact our former mayor is not qualified to be a city manager. He knows it, and we know it, and the city council who will appoint the city manager knows it,” Olin said.
Coppola said as much in a comment on the Kitsap Sun’s story about the city council race. The former mayor said he is happy at his new job as executive director of the North Peninsula Building Association, which is “a great fit for my skill set.”
Coppola went on the decry Gonnason’s assertion.
“Mr. Gonnason has a LOT of nerve making such a false statement,” wrote Coppola, who also described Gonnason as “aligned with the Matthes/ Michael/ Chang faction who will do or say just about anything to keep control of the city’s government.”
“Michael” being Gil Michael, a member of the Port Orchard Planning Commission and treasurer of Port Orchard Citizens for Responsible Government.
Michael during the 2011 campaign contributed to People for a Better Port Orchard, the anti-Coppola PAC that raised and spent just more than $2,800 on mailers designed to erode Coppola’s credibility. Michael donated $250 in cash and $250 of in-kind services to the group’s campaign.
Matthes, who publicly distanced himself from the P4P group, called Michael “my right-hand guy” on Dec. 6, the night his victory over Coppola was confirmed by a recount.
Chang is Port Orchard Councilman Fred Chang, running for re-election in an uncontested race, who was among the largest donors to P4P with a bequest of $500.
But let’s now end of this trip down memory lane or slippery slope, whatever the case may be. The point is Coppola’s has no designs on the city manager position.
“In the interest of full disclosure, while I originally proposed this change in 2010, and support it, I have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING at all to do with the Prop 1 campaign,” Coppola said.
With that settled, let’s look at whether Prop 1 is a move to oust Matthes. Putaansuu, also up for re-election in an uncontested race, asked the council to revisit the city manager debate early in Matthes’ second year in office. Events leading up to that debate included a stalemate between the council and mayor in December over the city attorney’s contract, suggesting a less than cooperative relationship between the city’s legislative and executive branches.
Putaansuu at the time said there was confusion over the respective roles of the council and mayor, and he criticized Matthes, saying, “He’s been in office for a year now. By now he should know what his role is.”
Also in December, the city’s development director abruptly resigned after a documented verbal altercation with the mayor. Putaansuu and other Prop 1 advocates say the switch to a city manager would halt staff turnover in city hall that seems to come with each new mayor. Port Orchard’s police chief left for Poulsbo in February.
Matthes himself has come out clearly against Prop 1, saying it’s an unnecessary expense that erodes city residents’ right to representative government.
Putaansuu on Oct. 18 responded to the question of whether council-mayor friction had anything to do with his position on Prop 1.
“I believe we need professional management. We could do worse than our current administrator. We can do much better than we have, I believe,” he said.
Olin addressed the question of a Matthes ouster in the context of costs and benefits of the change. Proponents say the increased salary of a city manager compared to that of the mayor would be offset by cost-saving efficiencies and increased revenue.
“It’s not about him, but it’s about the cost,” Olin said, “and we truly think for the money we will get more for our buck.”
Does civic friction trigger change?
Friction within city hall has precipitated change in some other cities, including Port Townsend, which made the switch to a city manager in 1998.
“I think the city had reached a point of where it had amassed kind of a political dysfunction, is how it was characterized to me,” said City Manager David Timmons, who was hired in 1999.
Steve Burkett, hired as Sequim’s city manager in 2009, said he hasn’t personally experienced conflict that triggered change during his 44-years in municipal governments around the U.S., “but I’ve seen that in other situations.”
Jim Doherty, a legal consultant for the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, estimates there are elements of dissatisfaction with current administration in roughly 50 percent of cases involving change of government. But, he added, it’s seldom the single, clear-cut reason.
“Sometimes it’s a mix,” Dougherty said. “A mayor may have trouble keeping up because of growth.”
And dissatisfaction, or the appearance thereof, can cut both ways. In Washington State, while 18 cities have changed from mayor-council to council manager governments since 1970, eight cities, including Spokane and Federal Way, replaced their city managers with a strong mayor.
Growth — and with it, the need to address more complex city management — is typically the main driver of any change of government, according to Ron Holifield, CEO of Strategic Government Resources, the municipal search firm Bainbridge Island used to hire its most recent city manager.
About 80 percent of SGR’s clients are strong mayor cities.
Where the candidates stand
In July, Chang was the lone council member to vote no on the resolution to put Prop 1 on the ballot. He had heard from constituents who did not want a change in the city’s classification to code city combined with the city manager question, as the measure is written.
Chang at the Oct. 3 forum said he finds the idea of professional city management “intriguing”, but favors residents being able to vote for mayor.
Gonnason at the forum reiterated his opposition to Prop 1 because of what he sees at the Coppola connection and also because of the possibility of a large severance payment if a city manager were removed.
Childs at the July council meeting where the ballot measure was approved said residents should get to vote on the city manager question. His personal opinion was, “For me, I think it’s a chance for our town to go to the next level and get some consistent, efficient management.” Childs reiterated that opinion at the Oct. 3 forum.
Bek Ashby and Kim Punt, two candidates running against each other for the seat to be vacated by Carolyn Powers, hold opposing views on Prop 1.
Ashby says the city council has not given enough details to show why a city manager is needed. She would work cooperatively under either system, she added.
Punt says the city has grown to the point it needs professional management.
“What public corporation would hire the CEO of a $30 million business without experience?” she said.
Campaign Records Available
Both Citizens for Professional Government, pro-Prop 1, and Port Orchard Citizens for Responsible Government, against Prop 1, have filed with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, using the mini-reporting option, meaning they will raise and spent less than $5,000 each, so itemized reporting of individual contributions and expenditures are not recorded on the PDC’s website.
Each group must track those items, however, and anyone may view their records by appointment during the eight days before the Nov. 5 election, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., except Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays.
Contact Port Orchard Citizens for Responsible Government through Treasurer Gil Michael, (360) 876-6196.
Contact Citizens for Professional Government through Treasurer Richard Peterson, (360) 874-7764.