A petition to allow residents to directly elect the city’s mayor is being circulated in Puyallup.
Puyallup resident David Prutzman spearheaded an initiative last week to bring a “strong mayor” form of government to the city, which he said would make it easier to hold the city more accountable for its decision making.
“Right now we really can’t hold our city manager responsible,” Prutzman said in a phone interview with The Herald on Wednesday.
City Manager Kevin Yamamoto could not be reached for comment.
Prutzman said supporters of the petition are unhappy with the direction the city has taken on issues such as homelessness and decisions to fight litigation, such as a lawsuit involving former Councilman Steve Vermillion. The lawsuit ended in July after four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on outside attorneys.
Prutzman argues changing the form of government to a strong mayor would “give the people of Puyallup the voice of who represents the mayor” and “hold somebody responsible for some of the issues we are having.”
“Most people do not know that we can’t elect our own mayor,” he said.
The city’s current council-manager form of government gives Puyallup City Council the power to hire — and fire — a city manager, who oversees administration, prepares the city budget and provides policy advice to council members. The council member with seniority becomes mayor, a role that is mostly ceremonial.
It’s a form of government that Puyallup has had since 1951 and that city attorney Joe Beck said was intended to bring more professionalism to government.
According to state law, a city manager is hired “solely on the basis of his or her executive and administrative qualifications” and does not need to live in city limits. Yamamoto, a Tacoma resident, grew up in the Puyallup Valley and was hired as city manager in 2015. Previously, he served as city attorney.
Puyallup Mayor John Palmer said Thursday that there are pros and cons to each, but that having a strong mayor risks opening the position to partisan influence and money from interests outside the city.
“The trade-off with that is you’re putting a lot of power into one person,” Palmer said. “Right now, in this (council-manager) form of government, the authority is in each of the council members.”
Supporters of the petition are working on a tight deadline, saying they need to gather 5,000 signatures by Jan. 10.
The petition then would go to the county auditor to verify all signatories live within the city limits. If successful, the measure could go on the special election ballot as early as April, where it would need to pass by majority vote.
Residents took to local businesses this week to gather signatures.
Prutzman, who is the chair of the 25th District Pierce County Republican Party, estimated Friday that close to a thousand people had signed the petition and that the initiative had gathered bipartisan support. The petition stated it was paid for by ReachOut Northwest, a conservative nonprofit, but Prutzman claims it’s not a party initiative.
“There are Democrats collecting signatures, Republicans collecting signatures ... This is a citizen-led initiative,” he said.
Puyallup Council members Jim Kastama and Cynthia Jacobsen support the petition, saying that the public is demanding more accountability.
“When a person is up for election, they’re far more cognizant of their constituent needs,” Kastama said. “It would be better if you could actually hear from a person you had elected and their reasons and judgment in making these decisions.”
If the number of signatures isn’t collected in time, Prutzman said he hopes the council brings it forward at some point.
Residents in the city of Tacoma struck down a ballot measure to change to a “strong mayor” form of government in November 2015. Opponents of the measure said “a strong mayor could be more more easily swayed by the political winds — and campaign donations — since he or she would have direct control of city operations,” former News Tribune reporter Kate Martin reported.