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What does it mean to be mayor of West Linn?

In a council-manager system, the mayor doesn't have added executive authority; however, the position does come with some important responsibilities


SUBMITTED PHOTO - The city will elect a new mayor in May. As part of a council-manager form of government, the mayor and City Council set policy while the City Manager is tasked with handling day-to-day operations. West Linn voters soon will choose a new mayor for the first time since 2012.

Whoever ultimately gets elected for the position in the May 19 special election won’t get a cushy new office at City Hall, a lavish salary or vast executive authority over city affairs. In a council-manager system of government, like West Linn’s, the mayor’s vote is equal to that of other council members.

The position, however, does hold important responsibilities — some related to policy and some symbolic — that can shape the city’s image both locally and throughout the state.

“You are the elected head of the government, but your vote means nothing more than any other councilor — you’re one of five,” Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt said. “(But) the mayor, informally, does play a bigger role in meetings around the community.”

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Two candidates — City Councilor Russ Axelrod and Council President Thomas Frank — are running to replace former Mayor John Kovash, who retired last month with two years left in his term. Upon being elected, either Axelrod or Frank, will be tasked with four primary mayoral responsibilities: signing all “records of proceedings” approved by the council; signing all ordinances passed by the council; endorsing bonds after council approval; and nominating the members of boards, commissions and committees.

The mayor presides over a City Council that serves as one half of West Linn’s council-manager form of government. Within this framework, which has been criticized by some residents in recent years, the mayor and City Council set policy which is to be implemented on a day-to-day basis by a city manager and city staff.

“It’s like the board of directors at a company,” said Frank, who was elected to council back in 2012. “We set goals and give them to the city manager, and it’s up to the city manager to implement them.”

According to the League of Oregon Cities, “most Oregon cities with populations over 2,500 have the council-manager or council-administrator form,” and a recent nationwide study by the International City/County Management Association showed that 59 percent of cities or towns with populations above 2,500 in the U.S. used that form of government.

In the Portland metro area, Portland and Beaverton are the only cities that do not operate under a council-manager government. Portland uses a “commission” style of government with a mayor and elected commissioners who serve as both a City Council and staff administrators, while Beaverton has a “strong mayor” government that allows the mayor take the primary administrative role in the government.

“In our relatively recent history, we’ve had a push to have a strong-mayor form of government,” Wyatt said. “And that may be a conversation some people in the community want to have. From staff’s perspective, we welcome the community thinking and talking about what form of government is best for them.”

Frank said he has also heard talks of switching to a strong mayor system, and that “there’s pros and cons both ways.”

“Take a look at Portland,” he said. “The population is a lot larger and the budget is a lot larger. But you look at areas where it’s failed, where you have commissioners running things who don’t know what they’re doing. That costs taxpayers a lot.

“If the citizens want that,” he said, “it’s a conversation we could have.”

For Axelrod, who took his seat on the council in January, the question comes down to what will best represent the interests of the community as a whole.

“I think it’s best to govern by group consensus as much as possible,” Axelrod said. “I think our current form of government is fine, as long as it’s managed properly in accordance with our charter and comprehensive plan. A strong mayor, like a strong city manager, can undermine the representation and effectiveness if there are not adequate checks and balances in governance.”

Axelrod has been critical of City Manager Chris Jordan, and in announcing his bid for mayor said that, “the increasing control by city management over the years has become detrimental to city affairs and relationships with the community.”

Criticism of Jordan and the council-manager style of governing has intensified in recent years as debates raged around the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership Project, the regulatory streamlining project and arch bridge-Bolton area planning.

While the future of West Linn’s governing model ultimately rests in the hands of the people, Wyatt said it would be unusual for a city of West Linn’s size (about 25,000 residents) to operate without a city manager.

“Where you don’t see (the council-manager government) happening is in the very large cities, where the head of local government becomes more politicized,” Wyatt said. “But even then, you’re hard pressed to find a Rahm Emanuel (mayor of Chicago), who doesn’t have a chief of staff who’s running the day-to-day while they’re running political operations.”

The debate surrounding the council-mayor form of government goes back to the term of former mayor David Dodds, who served from 2001-2004. Though the city charter remained unchanged, city staff members recalled that he took a more active administrative role and often had the final say on hiring or firing city staff. In 2004, he also proposed increasing the mayor’s salary to around $35,000 a year, but that idea was rejected by the city’s budget committee.

“I’ve served under over half of the mayors the city has ever had,” Parks and Recreation Director Ken Worcester said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve never had a true strong mayor form of government. In my opinion, we’ve had strong personalities, strong egos — and that’s what sets off the differences.”

Indeed, though West Linn mayors are not flooded with extra administrative responsibilities, they are viewed as symbolic heads of the city and often set a tone by how they run meetings or interact with constituents.

“Being the chair of the meeting, the mayor sets the tone for governing,” Frank said. “That’s something Mayor Kovash did a good job of doing after the Patti Galle days ... making work sessions productive so when it’s a council meeting, we’re not having another work session — we’re ready to take action and make meetings more efficient.”

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