Balance of power is a hot topic in the Orting City Council races ahead of Tuesday’s primary election.
Two seats garnered three-way contests, and some candidates aren’t just disagreeing with their opponents on the issue. They’re sparring with candidates from other races, too.
Former city staff member Gwen Robson says she decided to run for council Position 1 after she was caught in the middle of a tense power struggle between some council members and Mayor Joachim Pestinger.
Robson resigned from her position as executive assistant after the City Council decided in a split vote to block her confirmation as city clerk.
Position 5 incumbent Guy “Sam” Colorossi said the effort seeking confirmation of appointments and the decision to block Robson’s confirmation weren’t personal, but rather an attempt to uphold the integrity of the process for appointing staff members.
TENSION AMONG OFFICIALS
Orting has a strong-mayor form of government, meaning voters elect a mayor to run the city’s day-to-day operations.
The mayor is considered the chief executive officer while the the City Council is in charge of legislation and policy, said City Administrator Mark Bethune.
In other words, the council creates laws, and the the mayor manages and directs city staff members. That includes appointing staff members, such as the police chief and city clerk.
But some City Council members wanted additional oversight of mayoral appointments, a power the elected body previously had.
Last fall, the council voted 4-3 to approve an ordinance that granted it authority to confirm or block appointments by the mayor.
The ordinance states that “subordinate officers” to the mayor, such as a clerk or city administrator, “shall hold office at the pleasure of the mayor and shall be subject to confirmation by majority vote of the City Council.”
Pestinger vetoed the change, and the council overturned his veto.
City Council candidates are split on the issue. Some say the council overstepped its authority while others say the change adds to the city’s system of checks and balances.
Robson’s proposed confirmation as city clerk was the first to be blocked after the new policy was passed.
“It really just came down to a power play,” she said.
Giving the City Council power to block confirmation of appointees is an attempt to place its authority above the mayor’s, Robson said.
“There’s a legislative branch and an executive branch,” she said. “They’re separate, and there’s a reason for that.”
Robson said that, if elected, her top priority would be to guarantee a well-functioning council that respects one another and the mayor.
Colorossi, a longtime councilman and former mayor, said the council’s decision to block Robson’s appointment was in opposition to the mayor’s decision to skip a public recruiting process for the position.
“This was all guided by state law,” Colorossi said. “I have nothing against Gwen.”
Colorossi also noted that Pestinger tried appointing a clerk before the position was formally budgeted.
Colorossi said the council’s confirmation power isn’t new. Somehow the council was stripped of it back when the number of council members increased from five to seven, he said.
During his two stints as mayor (1967-1974 and 1990-2001), Colorossi was subject to the same confirmation rule, he added.
Because council members work with staff members, Colorossi said, it’s fair for the council to have a say in who is appointed.
“These people don’t report to us,” he said. “But they work with us.”
Robson initially filed to run against Colorossi, but switched to the Position 1 race.
Although not running against Colorossi, she said she’s prepared to challenge him or others who try to throw off the balance of power in the city.
“Some things need to change,” she said. “This is ridiculous.”
Position 5 candidate Nicola McDonald didn’t take a hard stance regarding City Council confirmations of mayoral appointments.
But she told The News Tribune that the polarizing issue points to a larger communication problem.
“I’m not saying that they did something terrible or that they did something great,” she said of the council’s confirmation ordinance. “I just think there’s a breakdown in communication on our council right now.”
That communication gap, she said, has led to a culture of “subverting the process as opposed to using it,” leading to ordinances that challenge the mayor’s authority as opposed to having constructive, open conversations about issues.
“They really need to understand how a strong-mayor system works,” said McDonald, who served on the council with Pestinger from 2008-2011. “The system worked fine and it has for a long time.”
McDonald said she decided to run for the council to offer a fresh perspective and to keep repeat candidate Douglas Bishop out of office.
Bishop, a former councilman running for the Position 5 seat, couldn’t be reached for comment.
He was elected to the council in 2003.
After running Orting’s fire district more than a decade ago, Bishop was the subject of state audit reports in 2006 and 2007 that faulted him for poor financial management and collecting disability benefits while working and receiving full-time pay as acting chief, respectively.
Incumbent Tod Gunther told The News Tribune he would respond only to questions in writing. Because other candidates weren’t offered that option, his request wasn’t granted, and he declined to comment.
Gunther was appointed to finish former Councilman Graham Hunt’s term after he was appointed to the state House. He is running against Robson and volunteer firefighter Jacob Weigley for the Position 1 seat.
Weigley also couldn’t be reached for comment.