Oak Harbor considers changing future mayor’s role

Oak Harbor leaders are considering restructuring the government to a weak mayor system.

Oak Harbor leaders are considering restructuring the government to a weak mayor system, where a city manager leads the city under council supervision, and the mayor has no more power than the other council members.

Alternative options include boosting the mayor’s position from part-time to full-time or keeping the structure the way it is, Interim City Administrator Sabrina Combs said at a recent city workshop.

According to Mayor Pro Tem Tara Hizon, who presented this idea originally at the February council retreat, these alternative options were added after the fact.

“That was my priority, and it specifically is council-manager form of government,” she said to Combs. “That’s the priority. You added in other options and renamed it, but it’s council-manager form of government specifically.”

Some of the other council members prefer the alternative options.

In Washington, 227 cities have a mayor-council, or strong mayor, form of government, and only 54 have a council-manager, or weak mayor, government, said Councilmember Eric Marshall.

“All of us coming together on how the city should be run and how to direct the city manager I think is going to be extremely difficult,” he said. “I for one don’t have the bandwidth to do that. I don’t have the time or the energy nor the desire to manage the city administrator and get involved in the day-to-day details of running a city of our size.”

Hizon has no intention for the council to “micromanage” a city manager, she said. The main point is that they would hire a very qualified person who would answer to seven people, the council, instead of one, the mayor.

A city manager is vetted and hired, she said, whereas a mayor can be a wild card.

“While we’re doing fine now, the fact that any registered voter in city limits could theoretically become mayor, that terrifies me,” she said.

According to Councilmember Christopher Weigenstein, this hasn’t been an issue in the past.

“So far we’ve done alright as a community, getting the right people into the right jobs I think, so I hate to see us go backward,” he said.

Councilmember Jim Woessner prefers switching to a full-time mayor instead. The previous mayor said he wished he had more time, and Mayor Ronnie Wright has taken on even more responsibility.

“Who in their right mind is going to come in and do a job for what you’re being paid, Mayor Wright?” he asked.

Sedro-Woolley is significantly smaller than Oak Harbor, and they have a full-time mayor, Weigenstein said.

“(We have a) full-time city administrator and part-time mayor, and the mayor has never felt like they have enough time in order to get things done,” Marshall said. “I don’t know how we go the other direction and lose the mayor, when we really need that portion, and the mayor has always said we need more time.”

In addition to a mayor and city administrator, Oak Harbor has a deputy city administrator and heads of each department.

Regardless, any change should go to the voters at the end of Mayor Wright’s term and not cut the term short, said Councilmember Shane Hoffmire.

“It has been a question for 12 years or so, and it’s probably worth having it answered in the next four years,” he said.

Council will continue this conversation at a workshop meeting at the end of April, as part of the process of solidifying the city’s priorities.