Benefits and criticisms of Beaverton's new city charter
Just over one year ago, Beaverton city voters approved a new charter that moved Beaverton from a "strong mayor" form of government to one in which the council will hire a city manager to run City Hall and supervise city workers.
While the council-manager form of government is a big change for Beaverton, one group of experts says it has its benefits.
The International City/County Management Association or ICMA is an association of local government professionals. ICMA works with more than 11,000 members to identify and speed the adoption of leading local government practices to improve the lives of residents, according to its website.
Marc Ott, executive director and chief executive officer of ICMA, says that council-manager cities tend to outperform those with strong mayors, in which the elected mayor oversees city staff.
City managers are educated and trained to be professionals at serving local government, Ott pointed out.
"(They are) the chief executive and chief administrative officer responsible for the day-to-day administration on all aspects of city operation," said Ott, who served as city manager of Austin, Texas, the country's 11th-most-populous city, from 2008 to 2016. "We bring that professionalism based on our code of conduct, which is the foundation on which we do our jobs. We do our jobs trying to be as efficient and effective as possible, transparent and with a recognition of our duty to serve all of the people."
Authority and accountability
Critics of council-manager systems argue that they concentrate too much power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats.
Between 1980 and 2020, Beaverton voters elected a mayor who directly supervised the city's department heads and could give staff direction — or even outright dismiss them.
Jerome Sibayan, one of the candidates for an open seat on the Beaverton City Council this year, is critical of Beaverton's new charter, which he has described as "fundamentally flawed" and "internally contradictory."
A U.S. Army veteran who retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel, Sibayan was responsible for creating large and complex organizations, which required that authority be properly aligned, he says.
"I don't see that in the new City Charter of 2021," Sibayan said. "Leaders can delegate authority but may not delegate full responsibility. Leaders take responsibility for everything their organization does or fails to do."
He added, "When it comes to the city government, the 'buck' of responsibility stops with the mayor. If the mayor is to be responsible, then the mayor must have the authority to direct the city manager."
When asked what accountability looks like in a council-manager form of government versus a strong mayor form of government, Ott said that he disagrees with proponents of a strong mayor form of government that say that there is no direct accountability in a council-manager system.
"The city manager is an at-will appointed employee of the mayor and council, which means that a city manager can be terminated with or without a cause in time," explained Ott. "Let's say that citizens in whatever community become dissatisfied with how the city is being ran, and they associate that dissatisfaction with the management, their recourse is to make their feelings known to the elected officials who have the power to terminate the manager. That's the line of accountability and that's how it should be."
Benefits and burdens
He also says that a council-manager form of government can facilitate social justice efforts, particularly in departmental and other government roles. This can take on many forms such as hiring practices that reflect the demographics of a community and the distribution of public services.
"We're always trying to look at the distribution of public services in a way that is both fair and equitable, and one of the ways we make those determinations is based on data," Ott said. "We can actually look at data relevant to the things that we do and see where need is and how resources are being allocated."
Ott added that council-manager cities tend to have higher credit ratings than cities without that form of government.
"That's a pretty powerful metric. When you have less than that, that means it costs your community more money to issue debt to do things like infrastructure," he explained.
As for Sibayan, he says it's up to the City Council to explain to constituents how Beaverton will work under the new system, as well as to gather public input.
The council still has the power to set policies and direct city resources. Under the council-manager system, the council now provides direction to the city manager, who is responsible for carrying out the council's wishes.
Beaverton is divided up into 11 neighborhood associations, each one represented by a committee, although the Beaverton City Council is still the ultimate decision-making body for the city.
Sibayan believes that a council representative should attend every neighborhood association committee meeting.
"This is a lost opportunity for the council to regularly communicate with and listen to the people of Beaverton," Sibayan told The Times. "It is also a lost opportunity for the council to provide transparency when it comes to educating and informing the people about how their government actually works."
Currently, Kurt Wilson is serving as Beaverton's interim city manager after being appointed last December. Wilson's term will conclude at the end of June.
The City Council will name Jen Haruyama or Eric Zimmerman as Beaverton's regular city manager in June.
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