Port Orchard may ditch state governance rules and become code city

PORT ORCHARD — Should Port Orchard drop its second-class city designation and become what’s known as a “Code City”?

According to Mayor Rob Putaansuu, it’s a no-brainer decision. While the average Joe on the street couldn’t tell you the difference, the mayor said the change is overdue. He says the city’s second-class city status is inefficient and incompatible with modern business practices. It also leaves Port Orchard government vulnerable to challenges that potentially might be put before a court judge.

A sampling of residents who took an online survey on the city’s website about the potential change also showed a strong preference for the change.

At a public meeting — or “civic conversation” — about the proposed action at City Hall, Putaansuu told the approximately two dozen people in attendance March 21 that 80 percent of the 146 people who responded to the survey favored a change to non-charter code city status.

The margin was closer when respondents were asked whether the authorization to make the change was the duty of the Port Orchard City Council or by a vote of city voters. On that question, 58 percent believed councilmembers should authorize the new designation. Forty-two percent were in favor of a citizen vote.

A sampling of survey respondent comments generally concluded that: a vote by the citizens would be a waste of city money, and the City Council should authorize the change. One respondent wrote: “The council and mayor are elected to serve the best interest of the citizens, and should make this change without having the extra expense of a measure on the ballot.”

Some respondents differed, however. “The people should always have a voice in the government. Despite the cost, it’s important for this to go to a vote. No council should have such power nor face any possible repercussions,” wrote a survey taker.

During the meet, Councilmember John Clauson said that while the survey sample size was small, “it’s a representative indication of what the community is interested in doing.”

What’s the difference?

The difference between the designations “is a bit subtle,” the mayor said in an interview March 21. “But there are some advantages. One, we’re having challenges with unfit buildings. We want to enter into development agreements to foster activity in our downtown,” Putaansuu said.

“It would give us much more latitude in our code. State law is very specific. In lawsuits that involve statutes pertaining to (our status) being a second-class city, we’re dealing with statutes that were written in the late 1800s and last updated in the 1960s.”

Its second-class city status only allows it to consider state regulations when creating statutes and regulations, not those the city might choose to adopt on its own. As a code city, he said, Port Orchard would be able to carry out what is in its city code, so long as it doesn’t violate state law.

The mayor said Port Orchard is one of just six cities in Washington state to retain second-class city status. The five other cities have a combined population smaller than that of Port Orchard. At the meeting, Putaansuu said being part of that small grouping doesn’t give the city a “very loud voice” with the state Legislature.

Gary Anderson of Port Orchard, who attended the meeting, told councilmembers that shifting to a non-code city status “recognizes that we’re growing up and participating as adults” as a governmental entity.

As a prelude to the two-question survey, the city’s website listed several benefits of becoming a code city. In addition to allowing flexibility through the concept of home rule, Putaansuu said another benefit is that the proposed measure does not change Port Orchard’s current City Council and strong mayor form of government.

The prelude also contended that the process of initiative and referendum is an easier option that a code city may adopt under the non-charter code city form of governance. It also asserted that code cities have greater flexibility to meet the challenges and needs of citizens and businesses. A second-class city, it said, is limited by a narrow set of state laws dating back to 1890 and revisions in the 1960s.

While the city hasn’t been subject to the vagaries of its second-class status in the courts, he said he doesn’t want to wait until that happens.

“It’s too late when you’re sitting before a judge and you’ve got a problem. This is about being proactive and having a more progressive form of government. We’re by far in the minority on this issue.

“We’ve grown to the point where we’d definitely benefit from the change,” Putaansuu said.

“We’re not on solid ground as a second-class city versus being a code city. If our code says we can do it, and it’s not in violation of state law, that’s what a judge is going to look to” in making a court decision.

The City Council is expected to decide at its March 28 meeting either to move forward with the proposal through councilmanic action or by a ballot measure vote.

If the City Council decides to have citizens vote on the proposed change, the mayor said approximately $12,000 has been budgeted to fund an election. The final price tag will depend on when the election would be run. Putaansuu said if other measures are put before voters, the cost could be slightly less. If it’s the only measure on the ballot, costs could elevate a few thousand dollars more.

Should its status change, the mayor said the city would proceed deliberately. “We would tackle the additional things we’d like to have in our code, one at a time,” Putaansuu said.

“That’s instead of bringing forward this gigantic furball (of new city codes) that nobody can understand. Each one of those code changes is going to require its own public hearing and process.”

The mayor said the city has made a concerted effort to be open and transparent about the process.

“We’ve been very thorough in trying to reach the public … through the website and at the public hearing last month.”