Federal Way talks term limits; few cities have them

A spirited discussion took place between the Federal Way City Council and members of the public during a special meeting regarding term limits for elected officials.

Around this time last year, Federal Way resident Roy Parke attempted to get an initiative on the ballot for term limits, but was unsuccessful. A few other residents took up Parke’s cause in the interim, leading to the discussion that took place Sept. 6. There is no ballot initiative for term limits this year.

City attorney Pat Richardson said term limits have been enacted in very few cities in Washington.

“Regarding term limits, we have 180 code cities, and three of those cities have term limits,” she said. “Term limits are effective at the time the candidate declares they want to run for office, and it’s applied to existing public officials.”

Those three “code” cities are Edgewood, Port Angeles and Puyallup. According to Richardson, in Edgewood, public officials cannot serve more than two consecutive four-year terms, while in Port Angeles, elected city officials are restricted to a maximum of three consecutive four-year terms. For Puyallup, Richardson said, elected officials can serve no longer than 12 years, regardless of what positions they’ve held on the council.

Two “charter” cities, Tacoma and Spokane, have self-imposed term limits on officials, with both having similar lengths of time as the aforementioned code cities, Richardson said.

Outside of the cities with current term limits, Richardson indicated that Kent and Millwood once had them, but Kent repealed its term limits in 2002, while Millwood repealed in 1997.

Citizens present at the Sept. 6 meeting were split on whether term limits were needed in Federal Way. Joanne Piquette presented a strong argument against term limits.

“The adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ applies here. Since the city incorporated, we’ve had 22 different city council members. Five incumbents were defeated at the polls, others decided not to run again. Some had run unopposed. So, where’s the problem?” she said.

Piquette said the process of election is a de facto term limit for public officials.

“If the voters feel a council member needs to be replaced, then they need to actively find someone to run against him or her in the next election, and support them,” she said. “That’s what elections are for. As you can see, Federal Way is one of the 180 non-charter cities in Washington state, and only three of them have term limits. Why would we even be considering that change?”

Clara McArthur, one of the vocal proponents for term limits, re-iterated her position, but was cut short after councilman Jim Ferrell objected to the manner in which she presented her argument. McArthur took a roundabout way of criticizing the council, listing a number of perceived offenses by one council member in particular.

McArthur attempted to continue, saying she was building up to her argument on why term limits are needed, but was overruled by Mayor Skip Priest, who asked for a review of council rules from Richardson. Richardson said the public comment period, under council rules, is intended for citizens to present their views on the issue at hand, and not take potshots at the council or the mayor from the podium. Priest gave McArthur one more chance to make her point.

“I would like to ask why we’re spending this kind of money where if we had term limits, he can go out and earn his own living instead of us supporting him,” she said of an unnamed council member.

With that, Priest asked for the microphone to be turned off, and McArthur returned to her seat in the audience.

The council was given its chance to weigh in on the issue, with some voicing support for term limits, while others felt it’s not that great of a concern to citizens of Federal Way. Councilman Jack Dovey said he had done some “unofficial” polling of voters, and found they were mostly indifferent to the idea.

“I don’t see the masses out there knocking on our doors, saying we need to change the way we do government,” he said. “I would challenge this council, before we make a monumental decision which changes the way we do business since we started this city, to go out and do a little more research just to make sure where your vote should be.”

Councilman Roger Freeman said he supports term limits because he feels “open seat” races create a more equal playing field, instead of races where a single challenger takes on an incumbent.

“When you have an open seat, you get the greatest number of people coming out to fight for the privilege of being a city council member,” he said.

Councilman Mike Park said he was opposed to term limits, citing three arguments. The first, he said, is that elections are the built-in term limit in the current system. Secondly, he said there are not many people in Federal Way who have the financial wherewithal to run for city council or mayor.

“As the longest serving council member, I faced four elections — ‘95, ‘99, 2003, 2007. Except for one, I didn’t have an opponent three times… This council position is not affordable to anybody.”

Park said his third reason for opposing term limits was the learning curve required by the positions. Not only do newcomers have to learn the ins and outs of council, they also have to learn how to operate within the greater regional committees in which council members participate, he said.

The council did not take any action on the issue of term limits at the Sept. 6 meeting, with Priest saying he felt Dovey’s idea of talking with the public about it should be explored so the council can have a clearer idea of where constituents stand when it comes to the issue.

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