Matt Driscoll

Rush to strong mayor in Puyallup feels like a power grab by Kastama and friends

Does Puyallup need a new form of government at City Hall?
Does Puyallup need a new form of government at City Hall? Courtesy Puyallup.com

The optics are miserable. The motivations suspect. The rush, to put it kindly, generated disingenuously, without anything remotely resembling a groundswell of public support.

In Puyallup, the city of more than 40,000 that’s quickly becoming better known for City Council dysfunction than daffodils and the state fair, there’s suddenly a new target in the crosshairs.

Since 1951, Puyallup has employed a city manager style of government. Now, the City Council is poised to take a major step toward changing that.

On Tuesday, Feb. 12, the council is expected to decide whether to place a proposal on the April 23 special election ballot giving voters an opportunity to replace the city manager form of government with an elected strong mayor.

If they do, it will mark the latest and most problematic chapter in a rapid, haphazard effort that’s hard to describe as anything other than brazen.

In fact, it might be better equated to an attempted coup.

“It’s very undemocratic and not in the best interest of the city,” said Mayor John Palmer, one of seven City Council members who was chosen by his colleagues to serve in the largely symbolic role of mayor for 2018 and 2019.

In Puyallup, the City Council selects a mayor from its ranks based on seniority, and the body works together with its city manager, a position Kevin Yamamoto has held since 2015.

Analyzing how Puyallup reached this teetering threshold provides all the evidence you need to back up Palmer’s assessment.

In January, a petition began circulating that aimed to gather enough signatures to place the strong mayor question on the ballot. The effort was championed by David Prutzman, the chair of the 25th District Pierce County Republican Party, and paid for by ReachOut Northwest, a right wing nonprofit.

Potential partisan motives aside, what we know for certain is the petition needed 5,000 signatures to make the ballot.

To date, it hasn’t come close.

Meanwhile, both Palmer and Councilwoman Julie Door said they’ve rarely if ever had constituents raise the city’s form of government as a concern.

One might conclude, then, that this provides a clear picture of how much — or how little, actually — Puyallup’s residents desire a change.

A motivated threesome on the City Council hasn’t been listening.

Despite the paucity of evidence, Councilman Jim Kastama, Councilwoman Cynthia Jacobsen and Deputy Mayor Tom Swanson decided the strong mayor matter was worth immediate attention and targeted the April 23 special election as the time to make their play.

The hard push is just one of many red flags.

“When does rushing something through without a public process ever a benefit to the constituency?” Door rightfully wondered. “It feels very underhanded and not transparent. ... This is a big thing. It’s just not who gets to have the gavel at the meeting.”

For Puyallup voters and those watching in bewilderment from afar, here are some other things to ponder:

If the council does agree to send the question to voters in April, will 10 weeks be enough time for a thorough public vetting?

Unlikely.

Is a special election in April — when few people are paying attention and turnout almost certainly will be tepid — really the best time to put such an important question on the ballot?

Of course not, especially if getting a real read on voters is the primary concern.

If voters do approve a change of government, will the 10 days between when the special election is certified on May 3 and candidate filing week, which begins May 13, be enough time for a legitimate field of qualified candidates to emerge?

That last one’s a trick, because there’s a likely answer.

Many in Puyallup expect Kastama, one of the loudest voices leading the charge, to run.

So, is this democracy or an attempted power grab?

Kastama said he hopes “several people run for the position and that we have a vigorous debate about the future of our city.” He went on to acknowledge he anticipates “joining this group.”

As for the bewildering sense of urgency, Kastama said the petition effort has been delayed by a lack of help from the current city administration. This he blames for “the time crunch.”

“Fundamentally, I believe that, in the long run, (a strong mayor) is the best form of government for Puyallup,” Kastama said. “I am willing to compromise on the actual election date but need to discuss this option with other Council members.”

For his part, Swanson — who has long been in favor of an elected mayor while maintaining the city manager style of government — said that he’s open to discussing an extended time line as long as it’s not a delaying tactic.

That’s a hopeful opening, because there are a number of remedies to a situation that’s quickly getting out of hand. While reasonable people could perhaps conclude that a change of government might benefit Puyallup, to suggest this is the way to go about it is deluded at best.

The most obvious solution involves letting the petition effort run its course. If the needed signatures are collected, the strong mayor question can appear on a ballot at some point in the future.

Or, if the City Council is determined to take this upon itself — which would be questionable, but let’s ignore that for the moment — they could at least slow down and target November.

By then, voters would have had a chance to educate themselves, and turnout promises to be better.

“I’m totally against the attempt by council to fast track this and put it on the April election,” Palmer said. “It’s too quick. It’s a big change in the form of government … and there has been virtually no public dialogue on this.”

He’s exactly right.

Unless something changes, it’s enough to make you wonder if that’s precisely the point.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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