Prosser mayor to go full time

ROSS COURTNEY YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLICNovember 1, 2012 

PROSSER -- Mayor Paul Warden is going full time.

After five years as an elected part-time mayor, delegating day-to-day operations to a hired city administrator, Warden will take the reins of the city of Prosser full time starting Nov. 12 and be paid a full-time salary of $64,000 per year plus benefits.

The Prosser City Council voted 5-2 this week to approve paying Warden rather than search for a new city administrator until his term is up in three years. With the change, the council aims to ease a period of transition as the city searches for a new police chief and finance director.

Randy Taylor, Jason Rainer, Morgan Everett and Ernie Troemel supported the measure. Steve Becken and Scott Hamilton opposed.

The council members discussed the issue for more than an hour.

Supporters said the change was not ideal, but was the smoothest way to see the city through some rough times.

"We have to do something immediately or we're going to hamper our day-to-day operations, our long-term planning. We're in the middle of a budget," Everett said. The city also is negotiating with three labor groups and shopping out its police dispatcher services to a regional center.

Opponents said giving the mayor a full-time salary limits checks and balances, writes off the chance for the skills of professional administrator and didn't "feel" right.

"Bottom line is, I don't think that this is right to do," said Hamilton. "I don't feel good inside of me."

Cathleen Koch has been filling the role of finance director and interim city administrator since the previous administrator, Charlie Bush, left for a post in Issaquah earlier this year. Warden had planned to promote her to the administrator's spot permanently, but Koch accepted a position in Richland and will have her last day in Prosser on Friday.

Prosser's new setup is legal, said Jim Doherty, legal consultant for the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington. Many cities opt to pay their elected mayor to work full time instead of hiring an administrator, who reports to the mayor anyway.

"You're just taking out that middle person," Doherty said.

In Prosser's strong-mayor form of government, the mayor is the elected CEO of the city with the power to hire and fire, while council members approve budgets and contracts.

But not all mayors can spend every day at city hall, so cities sometimes hire administrators. Warden currently receives a $500-per-month stipend from the city and works full time as a corrections officer in Oregon. He plans to resign from that job, he said.

Over the long haul, the move will save $55,000, said Koch, the outgoing city administrator. A new city administrator would cost about $90,000 per year, plus benefits. It also would save the cost of a search, which could run up to $30,000. The salary will end Dec. 31, 2015, when Warden's current term expires. The council also plans to eliminate the position of administrator until then.

About 12 other small cities use a similar structure. One of them is East Wenatchee, where Steve Lacy has worked full time as the mayor without the help of an administrator for 14 years. He had one for the first six months of office but the council wrote that position out of the budget.

"I didn't need him," Lacy said.

Also at the meeting:

-- The council gave Warden a green light to negotiate a contract with a police chief candidate.

The council's decision allows the mayor to negotiate with the candidate within a salary range of $84,000 to $99,000 per year.

Prosser has been without a police chief since July, when Pat McCullough retired.

Warden has chosen his favorite candidate, but would not name him because he had not notified his current supervisor. The candidate serves as a deputy chief of a department larger than Prosser's in the Northwest, Warden said.

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