PORT ANGELES — Fluoridation opponents are pressing forward with a petition to change city government and elect a new City Council despite questions over the petition.
The petition would transform Port Angeles from a code city with home-rule powers and a City Council-city manager government to a more narrowly defined second-class city with fewer powers, including none to put forward citizen initiatives and referenda.
Would the city continue to have a council-hired city manager who acts as the city’s CEO?
Or would there be an elected mayor with full administrative powers — unlike the role filled by Patrick Downie — along with an elected city attorney, clerk and treasurer, and no city manager?
The petition, which needs 467 signatures to go on the ballot — not the 477 that fluoridation opponents had previously said it required — also would bring about the election of an entirely new seven-member City Council if voters approve the resulting ballot measure.
Four members — Dan Gase, Brad Collins, Cherie Kidd and Downie — incensed fluoridation foes.
They formed a council majority that decided Dec. 15 to continue fluoridation of the city’s drinking water and on Jan. 5 reaffirmed that decision despite a water users survey that rejected the practice.
Longtime anti-fluoridation organizer Dr. Eloise Kailin said Friday the goal is to collect more than 500 signatures with hopes the measure will be on the Aug. 2 election ballot. Information on how many signatures have been collected so far was not available.
Kailin predicted that new City Council elections would likely not occur until 2017 — the same year the council terms of Gase, Collins and Downie end.
Kidd’s term is over Dec. 31, 2019.
But by retaining what’s called a city council-city manager government, also known as a weak mayor system, the petition could conflict with state law, Olympia attorney Gerald Steel, representing “Our Water, Our Choice,” and Joe Levan, lead attorney for the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, said Friday.
The MRSC is a nonprofit organization that provides consultation and information about municipal operations to local governments.
The sticking point: The city manager position does not exist under state law that governs the formation of second-class cities.
The language appears unequivocal.
“The government of a second-class city shall be vested in a mayor, a city council of seven members, a city attorney, a clerk, a treasurer, all elective,” the law states.
“It would automatically be strong mayor,” Levan said, noting that the word “shall” seems to leave no wiggle room.
While questioning the wording of the petition, Steel said anti-fluoridation organizers will continue gathering signatures under a state law that provides for any city under 30,000 to be formed under the council-manager form of government.
State law, he said, allows for the present council-manager system under a second-class-city form of government.
“If it has to say it has to be a mayor-council, then that’s what the petition will say,” he said.
But no legal issue has been raised sufficiently to cause the effort to slow down, Steel said.
“We may have to abandon the petition and circulate another petition,” he said.
“We think that’s a small possibility at this point, and it’s not worth slowing down our process.”
Association of Washington Cities spokeswoman Alicia Seegers Martinelli referred inquiries about second-class cities to the MRSC.
“According to the chapter that deals with second-class governments, there is no reference to city manager,” Levan said.
“In a second-class-city plan, the mayor is separately elected.
“You could have a city administrator, not a city manager.
“The word ‘shall’ in a statute generally means it’s not discretionary.
“It’s a mandate that it has to be done that way.”
But he also said the actual process for changing from a code city to a second-class city may leave open the possibility of retaining a city manager.
“That seems to be an open legal question on whether or not that’s allowable,” Levan said.
And state Auditor’s Office spokesman David Ammons said the law appears to be unclear on whether a city manager system of government can be retained if the city is classified as second class.
Ammons said the final petition and its signatures will be reviewed by Auditor Shoona Riggs, who was unavailable for comment late Friday.
Ammons said the process calls for her to consult with Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols, as her legal adviser, on the petition’s legality.
“The adviser would offer her legal advice on whether it should . . . be on the ballot,” Ammons said.
McKeen and City Attorney Bill Bloor did not return calls for comment Friday.
Eight among the state’s 281 cities are classified as second class, including Port Orchard.
“If that’s an advantage or not depends on your perspective,” Levan said.
“A code city does have much broader powers than a second-class city.”
Mayor Rob Putaansuu said Friday that Port Orchard residents seem happy with the way things are.
A ballot measure to change to a code city failed a few years ago.
“The bigger issue was, the community wants a strong mayor,” Putaansuu said.