City prepares for transition to new council

Over the next few months the new City Council and interim city managers are planning to revamp public participation, council meeting structures and other concepts by creating a new protocol for the council-manager form of government.

Next year’s council is the first to be elected since the public decided to change its form of government in May. And while tension between members of the last council has appeared in the past, city officials and councilors say the new group will be different.

“I think the new form of government creates a team,” said Councilor Kim Brackett.

“When you have the manager form, it’s even more important that the council act as a body rather than as individuals,” said Interim City Manager Lee Walton.

The new council, which features Kirsten Hytopoulos, Bob Scales and Debbi Lester replacing Kjell Stoknes, Chris Snow, Debbie Vancil and former Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, will be sworn in at a special meeting on Jan. 6. An all-day work session for the full council is scheduled on Jan. 9.

“What we’re trying to do is get a good start by spending all day with a council get-together,” Walton said.

For more than two decades, Walton and his Deputy City Manager Stan McNutt have helped change the form of government in other cities or have built cities from scratch.

They have learned that government runs smoother when they establish clear policy for the council on how to handle everything from public participation, council demeanor, to how to properly make a motion.

That’s why McNutt, along with Brackett, Snow and Councilor Barry Peters have worked to put together a Governance Manual to simplify council protocol.

McNutt and Walton perfected the concept in Spokane Valley, where the two men worked together.

“Without the procedures in our Governance Manual to iron out the details our meetings would be chaos,” said Spokane Valley Mayor Richard Munson.

McNutt told the council this manual could take as long as three months to create and implement, meaning the changes brought by the new protocol may not be noticed until March or April.

Brackett said this manual will replace three separate council protocol documents designed to deal with the strong-mayor form of government.

One of the most important pieces of this new document will be a revamped public participation system, Brackett said.

“It will front-load the public participation in legislation so that we can get all the items out on the table before entering the formal process,” she said.

Peters said the council often receives complaints from citizens that they aren’t being heard when the only mode of speaking to the council is through a one-way public comment period.

“We’ve heard people say that it’s frustrating to stand up and give a three-minute speech to the TV camera at the council meeting and then sit down without having any interaction with the council,” Peters said.

The public process became a problem on several high-profile projects this year.

As the process neared its completion, opponents of the Island Gateway project said they never received input. A right-of-way vacation the city granted to the project, is the subject of a lawsuit with several of those citizens.

Those fighting to maintain the current look of Strawberry Plant Park complained that they were never brought into the process. Their efforts led to the project being stopped for nearly five months.

In Spokane Valley, Munson said, the council takes comment from the public before and after deliberations. The council there also seeks the public’s advice right before making a vote.

Peters said the manual will change meeting structures as well. In lieu of the committee structure, which has three councilors taking in information from staff and other experts and then passing it along to their colleagues, the council may switch to two different types of meetings, Peters said. Two weeks of each month would be dedicated to study sessions, in which the council and the public are briefed on an issue, with the other two weeks involving decisions and other business.

The city and the council hope that the changes brought about by the Governance Manual will help build a relationship between the council and its city manager that didn’t exist between the council and mayor in previous years.

“Sometimes the council has conflicts with the mayor,” Walton said. “But you really don’t see that conflict with a manager. If that conflict even starts, the manager is gone,” he said.

Brackett, who was elected to the council in 2007, is excited to work on this new protocol and help build relationships between the council and its managers. She said this transition to a new form of government with different protocol for council, will help the council better serve the community. Working with Walton and McNutt, who have expertise in setting up the council-manager form of government, should make the transition easier for the council, she said.

“They’re the rock stars for the city manager form of government,” Brackett said. “The community is very lucky to be able to learn from their knowledge and experience.”

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