‘Council-manager’ better in long run

Lloyd Halverson

An open letter to the Camas and Washougal communities,

It is timely to note that both the city of Washougal and the city of Camas are looking into the form and structure of local government.

Washougal’s City Council has taken action to place a form of local government measure on the November ballot for the consideration of the voters. A committee on this subject in Camas, chaired by visionary former Mayor Nan Henriksen, completed its task and provided an extensive report to the Camas City Council in June.

As a member of the Camas committee, I composed a summary of my views on the topic.

This guest column shares that summary with The Post-Record’s readers. My hope is that the discussions of this subject will be marked by civility and light. The people of the community deserve these qualities in the public arena.

The major forms of local government professional management are well described. Data on the prevalence of the council-manager form and the “strong mayor” form, and the distribution among Washington cities is also available. The trends tend toward the council-manager form of government in middle-sized communities, as well as in cities that have incorporated in Washington State in the last three decades.

My personal experience includes seven years as city manager in a small Oregon city (Independence, Oregon) and 24 years as the first city administrator in a dynamically developing Camas. My views are also informed by observations of local governments in the Pacific Northwest and overseas. I benefit from a master’s in public administration (MPA) and currently serve as a senior advisor, appointed by the Washington City Management Association (WCMA) and the International City Management Association (ICMA).

Here are a few summary conclusions in the form of government matter:

1.) Leadership matters: The quality and character of elected officials is of paramount importance for effective, democratic local government. Likewise, the skills, character, training, experience and drive of local government professional managers and administrators also is critical to success. Either form can work well. Communities with either form can and do flounder, drift and fail.

2.) A most critical community choice is to obtain professional, full-time management talent. Cities all have their individual character, history, conditions, etc., and their paths to professional management are varied. Choosing to employ a non-political administrator is a most important step, especially for communities and organizations that experience rapid growth and change. The hiring of a professional also can greatly assist a city in recovering from major difficulties. In Clark County, Vancouver was the only city with a professional manager prior to 1989. Now, all cities in the county with populations over 3,500 have full-time staff leaders. Some nearby smaller communities — Kalama, Stevenson and North Bonneville — also have administrators.

3.) As to the question of council-manager or “strong mayor,” government, my considered opinion is that, in the long run, the likelihood of sustained community success is better with the council-manager form. This leads us back to the first point: Leadership matters, and either form can work well. It also is vital to note that, in our democratic system, elected leaders are voted into office, representing their constituency. And, in the nuanced words of another observer: “People often get the government they deserve.”

Lloyd Halverson served as the city of Camas’ first administrator, from May 1989 to his retirement in August 2012. Before coming to Camas, Halverson worked as the city manager in Independence, Oregon. In his non-governmental leadership roles, Halverson also worked as an executive director of a private nonprofit in California and as a high school teacher, also in California. Halverson has his master’s in public administration (MPA) and serves as a senior advisor, appointed by the Washington City Management Association (WCMA) and the International City Management Association (ICMA). He was a member of the form of government committee, appointed by Camas Mayor Scott Higgins, which made a recommendation to the Camas City Council in June that city officials place a question on the November 2018 ballot asking voters to change Camas’ form of government from its current “strong mayor” configuration to a council-manager format.