Transparency in Gig Harbor takes hit as city administrator’s paid suspension passes one-month mark

(Editor’s note: After publication of this TNT editorial, Gig Harbor released some information Friday about the reason the city administrator was placed on paid leave. You can read about it in a Gateway news story published Friday evening.)

Gig Harbor Mayor Kit Kuhn touts openness as a top value of his administration. In Kuhn’s profile on the city website, the populist leader who was swept into office 18 months ago on a slow-growth campaign lists “transparent government and respect for citizens” as his No. 1 goal for the Maritime City, pledging to “provide accurate communication to and from our citizens.”

To his credit, Kuhn has made a practice of being accessible to ordinary Gig Harborites. The mayor’s informal “Coffee with Kit” conversations the first Tuesday of each month at Kimball Coffeehouse are a good example.

But Kuhn’s decision to put the city administrator on paid leave June 3 — and his reticence to share any information with the public a month later — run counter to the forthright image he’s cultivated.

Kuhn needs to say more before the rumor mill fills the void; meanwhile, the City Council and citizens should make clear they’re not content to be left in the dark.

Gig Harbor has a strong-mayor form of government, in which the elected executive enjoys a large degree of independence. Unlike the council-manager form of government used by Tacoma and other big cities, this system tends to concentrate power in a mayor’s hands and can be subject to abuse.

Communities must guard against that, even when (perhaps especially when) a public official wins a resounding mandate with more than 70 percent of the vote, as Kuhn did in 2017.

City Administrator Wade Farris, whom Kuhn hired to run day-to-day operations last August, was suspended with pay 10 months later for mysterious reasons. “We hope to be able to say something soon” was all Kuhn told a reporter for The Gateway, the TNT’s sister newspaper, in late June, adding that the suspension didn’t involve lawbreaking.

Kuhn stuck to the same line when the TNT editorial page editor asked for an update at this week’s coffee confab.

Taxpayers have a right to know what’s going on. Farris, a career Air Force officer and former city administrator of Othello, Washington, receives an annual salary of $158,000 in Gig Harbor. That includes more than $13,000 (and counting) for the time he’s been suspended so far.

We understand the city must exercise some discretion. Under the law, Farris has an opportunity to seek a protective order blocking release of official records documenting why he was placed on leave. The TNT has requested those records from the city and expects a response next week.

But beyond this situation, the mayor would do well to shed more light on his overall staffing strategy and the distribution of authority at City Hall.

A jeweler by trade, Kuhn knows he’s been entrusted with a gem of a community. Nobody questions his work ethic or commitment to Gig Harbor. But staff instability is becoming a hallmark of his short tenure.

It started his first day in office when he fulfilled a campaign promise to sack City Administrator Ron Williams. More than three months passed before Kuhn appointed an interim administrator, then four more months before he hired Farris to fill the job permanently.

The city also lost its five-year planning director last September when Kuhn consolidated departments.

All these shakeups not only centralize control and increase the workload of a first-term mayor who’s still learning on the job; they also deprive taxpayers of the managerial expertise that a fast-growing suburban city needs.

Kuhn’s reluctance to discuss a sensitive personnel matter isn’t unusual; mayors all over the U.S. follow the same playbook. But as these things routinely go, tight-lipped suspensions turn into hush-hush investigations, which often culminate in quietly executed severance agreements at public expense.

Gig Harbor should fight that type of secretive culture. It starts by holding the mayor accountable to his professed No. 1 goal.