Olympia City Council members say Hall’s departure is a chance to rethink how city is run

Council chambers at Olympia City Hall, pictured in 2011.
Council chambers at Olympia City Hall, pictured in 2011. Olympian file photo

Olympia City Council members say the upcoming retirement of longtime City Manager Steve Hall is an opportunity to reconsider how the city is governed and managed.

Hall announced earlier this month he would retire in November after 16 years as city manager and 13 years as assistant city manager. His is one of the few jobs hired by the City Council. So far there has been no announcement of how he will be replaced.

In a press release Monday from Nathaniel Jones’ mayoral campaign, he and fellow council member Jim Cooper called for a conversation on whether it is time for a change. They suggested appointing an interim city manager, but holding off on finding a permanent replacement until the community has a chance to weigh in.

They say the city should consider switching to a so-called strong mayor system, electing council members by district, or even altering the number of council members.

Olympia currently uses the council-manager form of government, in which an elected council sets policies and hires a professional city manager to carry out those policies and oversee daily operations and city staff. The mayor votes as a member of the council and leads its meetings, but has few other responsibilities.

The more common form of city government is mayor-council, sometimes referred to as the strong mayor system, where the council sets policies and an elected mayor serves as the city’s chief administrative officer and may also have veto power, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center.

Jones, who is challenging incumbent Cheryl Selby for the mayor’s job, said any change would likely come after November’s election.

“I am not trying to become Olympia’s strong mayor. Quite honestly I’m trying to have a conversation,” he said. “It’s not about me, it’s about the community.”

Selby called Jones’ campaign press release a “head-scratcher,” noting other council members also have been having similar conversations since Hall’s retirement announcement.

“We all want to take a look at it,” she said. “And that decision will be owned by this council, not just two people.”

Jones isn’t the only candidate raising the issue. Appearing on The Olympia Standard podcast, the two candidates for his seat on the council, Matt Goldenberg and Dani Madrone, said it is time to reconsider the city manager position.

“Should this really be someone who is hired or should this be someone who is elected, and how long is an appropriate term?” Goldenberg said. “We’re not the Olympia of the 1970s, you know. Why are we still running that way?”

Elsewhere in Thurston County, Lacey uses the council-manager system while Tumwater, Yelm, Rainier and Tenino use mayor-council. According to MRSC, changing a city’s form of government requires a vote of the people.

Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.