Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Puyallup officials drop 'strong mayor' push, ending heated debate

Puyallup City Hall (2008) by SounderBruce is licensed under CC by 2.0

A group of Puyallup officials has backed off a proposal that would have overhauled the city's government by putting a "strong mayor" in charge. The decision ends a period of politcal turmoil in the Pierce County community. 

The proposal, backed by three City Council members, would have put an initiative on the ballot in April allowing voters to do away with the city manager-led system of government and instead elect a mayor. The result would have been a government structured more like Seattle's. 

Over the years, 10 Washington cities have transitioned to "strong mayor" systems, including Snohomish, where voters approved the change in 2016. But 16 cities have gone in the other direction, replacing mayors with city managers, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center.

"The continuing popularity of professional management in Washington reflects not only the growth in the number and complexity of local government services, but also the growing demands placed on local governments, both large and small, in the form of state and federal mandates," the organization wrote on its website.

For 68 years, Puyallup's government has been run by a city manager hired by the council. The council selects a senior member from among its ranks to serve as "mayor," but the title is largely ceremonial. 

Council Member Jim Kastama backed the initiative effort, saying a "strong mayor" system would be more democratic and reduce dysfunction.

"We've been going on for the past 10, 15 years without real leadership in this community," Kastama said at a council meeting Tuesday. He said he was interested in running for mayor, but expected others to run, too. 

The "strong mayor" idea faced backlash from residents and leaders, some of whom saw it as a power grab by a political faction led by Kastama. Others expressed general concerns about the "strong mayor" structure.

"I do not support at all taking the power and putting it into one person," Council Member Julie Door said at Tuesday's meeting. 

Leaders in the city of 37,000 people have been divided for the past year over how to handle homelessness and other issues. Kastama, a founder of a group called Clean Up Puyallup, has framed homelessness as a safety and quality-of-life problem that should be addressed through enforcement.

Kastama also proposed firing the city manager last year, blaming him for costly legal fights the city has been involved in. Kevin Yamamoto has served as city manager since 2015. 

Dozens of residents gathered for Tuesday's meeting, and most spoke against the "strong mayor" idea.

On Tuesday, Council Member John Palmer, the current mayor, called the proposal a "trainwreck." Council Member Dean Johnson, a swing vote on the issue, expressed concern that a "strong mayor" system would inject partisanship into city politics. 

Supporters of the idea said they would take it off the table. The council voted 7-0 to drop the proposal Tuesday. 

But a group of residents who back the idea could still collect enough signatures on a petition to put it to a public vote in November. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.