PORT ORCHARD — On a Friday afternoon during one of its meetings, the City Council was acting like a bunch of 13-year-olds. As one might not expect, though, there were no raised voices or impassioned debate.
As the short meeting ensued, Mayor Rob Putaansuu was a patient, instructive and guiding force as he worked to get the elected officials back on track with their task: to decide whether to save or cut down a tree in the city.
In this instance, the City Council “meeting,” with seven council members, city government staff members and citizen participants in attendance, was acted out by Marcus Whitman Middle School seventh graders, roughly ages 12 and 13. The students role-played the city government in action as part of a mock council session in front of an assembly of their peers. The mayor was there to guide them through a scripted council session.
Putaansuu was at the assembly to speak with the seventh graders about how city government functions, how elected officials make decisions on civic issues and to answer questions the students had about his experience being mayor.
These kids did manage to stump the mayor when, for the second time in one of these sessions, a seventh-grader complimented Putaansuu on his choice of shoes.
“I don’t know why you all like my shoes,” he responded with a grin.
It was only then that the students’ Washington state history teacher, Gene Gerard, disclosed to the mayor that his students were putting into practice a newly learned skill, in which “if you don’t have anything to say to an adult, offer them a compliment.”
(For the record, Putaansuu said he was wearing Timberland shoes.)
Choosing random students sitting in the front row of the auditorium, the mayor brought them up on stage to play-act as participants in a mock City Council meeting. The item on the table: whether to save or cut down a tree that was a potential safety hazard.
Following the script, the students stood in as city officials and citizens who were to address the issue.
The mayor first introduced it as a council agenda item. The student public works director explained the tree’s roots had spread so much that they were breaking up the adjoining sidewalk. After a discussion by council members, the city attorney and mayor, the student city clerk opened a public discussion period that included comments from members of the Lopez and Johnson families.
After careful consideration, the student council members, unscripted in this case, voted to cut down the tree by a 6-1 vote.
Putaansuu later said the exercise was a way to demonstrate to students that decisions made by city government are not capricious, but instead are deliberated and decided in an organized, established manner.
“My hope was to open up their eyes a little bit,” the mayor said.
“I hope that (through the mock council session) they’ll learn to become good citizens. That means getting involved.”
He said Gerard had asked him to speak to the students, who have just begun learning about how government operates. This was Putaansuu’s second assembly appearance; he also spoke to a middle-school class in the prior week.
Following the mock session, the mayor answered questions from students. Here’s a sampling:
“What’s it like working next to the jail?”
“We don’t have a jail. I work in the building with the bell tower.”
“Does the city provide you a mansion?”
“No, no mansion. I have my own house downtown.”
“Can the mayor get fired?”
“Absolutely. I was voted into office by the people, and if I don’t do a good job, then I can be voted out of office.”
“What has been the most challenging thing you’ve faced?”
“The Tremont (street widening) project. It was tremendously challenging to put all the funding together.”
“How much money do you make?”
“The mayor’s salary is about $60,000. It’s a little bit more than what Mr. Gerard makes and a little bit less than your principal makes.”
“How come the principal makes more than you?”
“I don’t control what I make. The City Council sets my salary.”
“Have you met Donald Trump?”
“No, I haven’t met the president.”
“Do you have a bodyguard?”
“I don’t have a bodyguard. But I did bring (pointing to an attending reporter) with me.”
And, in a sign of the times, the inevitable, most-asked question: “Can I get a photo taken with you?”
Putaansuu laughed afterward when asked about the proliferation of “selfie” requests he received: “It’s now a part of our culture. Those photos will be posted on their social media sites.”