The question seems simple: Is running Ruston a full-time job?
A ballot measure this month hopes to answer that.
Voters will decide Aug. 19 on a proposal that could change the town’s government. If approved, the council would hire a town manager, who would oversee daily operations.
The mayor, the town’s executive under its current system, would be a member of the five-member council under the proposed changes.
Proponents say a part-time mayor doesn’t have enough free time to properly run the city. Opponents say it’s too costly and a departure from the town’s history.
A change of government could be the latest step in the rapid changes befalling the small town wedged between Tacoma and Commencement Bay. The Point Ruston mixed-use development and The Commencement high-rise condominium building will change Ruston’s landscape and demographics when completed. The town has debated the proper way to increase tax revenue. And the council has voted to enter negotiations with Tacoma over building and land-use planning services — a move that caused some in both municipalities to talk about possible future annexation.
Supporters of a town manager say it’s just too much for one person – currently retired college dean Bob Everding – to handle on a part-time basis at an annual salary of $6,000.
"It’s everything from the development of Point Ruston to lease negotiations at the school building to supervision of employees to the multiple legal actions we’re involved with," Councilman Dan Albertson said Friday. "I don’t think you can ask someone to do that for virtually nothing. They either won’t be able to devote enough time to it, or they’re going to be so grossly underpaid for the effort that they put into it that it’s unreasonable to expect them to do it."
Sherri Forch chaired the committee that drafted the Yes statement for Ruston’s voter guide. She said she became convinced of the need for a full-time administrator when she volunteered to write the town’s official newsletter. Before publication, she needed to submit it to then-Mayor Michael Transue. She said it would sometimes take a few days for Transue, who juggled the demands of his office, his career and a family, to read it over and respond to her.
"My point is that a citizen mayor, with a career with two teenage daughters, has to go to soccer games and chaperone school dances – in other words, he’s got a life," Forch said. "A citizen mayor with a life just doesn’t have the time, the energy."
Someone, she said, needs to have daily oversight of the town’s employees, police department and fire department.
Forch also points to neighboring cities – like Fife, Fircrest, Federal Way, University Place and Lakewood – employ administrators.
"It’s not reasonable to ask a citizen to do this anymore," she said. "It’s too specialized. There’s too much too knowledge. You need a consultant for this, a consultant for that. You need an attorney to protect the mayor from missteps. The regulations are so complicated, you need a professional."
Karen Pickett wrote the No statement in the voter’s guide. She said she’s wary of adding another layer of bureaucracy and losing an elected official who is responsive to citizens. Under its current format, the mayor is elected to a four-year term.
Pickett is also concerned with the amount it will cost to hire an administrator; both sides agree the salary likely will be between $75,000-$100,000.
"The council’s been talking about how we’re spending at a deficit," Pickett said. "They want to (raise taxes on) certain businesses. They want to find other revenue sources. They want to outsource town services, or at least they’re investigating that.
"Either we’re in a financial crisis or we’re not. I don’t think we are, but I still think what we have left in the reserves has to be carefully watched over, and I don’t think we can afford $100,000 a year right now."
Proponents counter by pointing out the town spent more than $300,000 last year on consultants and attorneys. And some supporters of the change, Forsch included, agree that Ruston might not have a need for a full-time administrator after the major developments are finished.
"We have well-intentioned citizens running the ship," she said. "If the ship goes aground, it’s because we probably didn’t hire a professional. It’s that simple."