News

Elected mayor movement ripens

By JACINDA HOWARD, The Mirror

How best to govern Federal Way was the topic Sunday at a forum in which residents voiced their arguments for and against an elected mayor.

Accountability Comes to Town (ACT), a Federal Way organization at the forefront of vying for an elected mayor, sponsored the public forum at Decatur High School.

Wes Crago, city administrator for Ephrata, answered questions and provided firsthand facts and accounts of the advantages, and disadvantages, of an elected mayor. The city of Ephrata has operated under both a city council-city manager and a mayor-city council form of government.

“I’m not here in Federal Way to tell you what is right or wrong here,” Crago said.

Currently, Federal Way has a city council-city manager form of government. The seven city council members are elected by Federal Way voters. The members then choose among their ranks a person to serve a two-year term as mayor, thus representing the city and leading city council meetings.

The council also hires a city manager, who plays a role similar to a CEO. This person is generally qualified for the position and has experience managing budgets and staff. The council can fire the manager at any time if he or she is not performing the job adequately.

Though Federal Way has been governed this way since its incorporation in 1990, some residents wish to see the structure change.

Federal Way residents at the forum about the accountability of a strong mayor and voiced concerns about the current form of government.

Several of the approximately 50 residents in attendance said they wished to see a mayor-city council, or elected mayor, form of government. Many felt they would receive better representation and that an elected mayor would be held more accountable for actions — or inactions.

Joey Kaye has lived in Federal Way for 16 years. Over time, she has seen the city become less appealing, she said. She is upset that the majority of the city council members have served on the council for multiple years, she said. An elected mayor would have to represent the people, she said.

“We need to try another route,” Kaye said. “We’ve watched too much of Federal Way go downhill.”

Federal Way resident John Wilde has lived in the city for nine years and holds similar views as Kaye. The city council tries to serve Federal Way, but its members do not directly answer to anyone, he said. Choosing to adopt an elected mayor form of government could result in a mayor who is not the best choice for Federal Way; however, the people would ultimately have the opportunity to dismiss that person at the end of a four-year term, Wilde said.

As is, Federal Way residents have no say in who their mayor is and no way to remove that person from the position if it is not filled well, Wilde said.

Pros and cons:

Both forms of government have their advantages and disadvantages, Crago said.

An elected mayor could be perceived as more accountable, he said. An elected mayor structure generally fosters a relationship in which the city council and mayor challenge each other, which can be healthy, Crago said.

Furthermore, if voters are unhappy with the mayor, they may choose not to re-elect that person at the end of the term.

The mayor could not face a recall before the end of the term unless he or she conducted an unlawful act.

But Crago reminded residents that currently, the public elects its city council members. A city council-city manager form of government means the residents are virtually guaranteed a city manager who is a leader with experience and know-how in operating a city. An elected mayor is not the answer to all the city’s problems, he said.

Changing Federal Way’s form of government should not be viewed as changing its policies, Crago said.

“The form of government is not the end-all, fix-all, be-all for everything,” Crago said. “It’s the people that get elected that make the biggest difference.”

If Federal Way chooses to adopt an elected mayor form of government, there is a chance that a popular but ineffective or unresponsive mayor could be elected. If voters choose to keep the city council-city manager form of government, a chance exists that the council or manager could be unresponsive to the public’s needs, Crago said.

“You have to hire the people and elect the people that will put Federal Way first,” he said.

Crago remained neutral on his opinions as to which form of government would best work in Federal Way.

He said he believes in checks and balances, but there is no clear way to determine what is best for the city.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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To learn more about this issue, read the Aug. 8 Mirror article titled “Push for elected mayor clears hurdle” and the Oct. 20 Mirror article titled “Election date set for mayor initiative.” Both stories can be found on The Mirror’s Web site at www.fedwaymirror.com.

The Mirror and Federal Way Chamber of Commerce will host a debate on this issue 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, at a location to be determined. Look for more details in The Mirror.

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Timeline of events:

The push for an elected mayor started this past summer when Federal Way resident Roy Parke, president of ACT, began circulating a petition and collecting signatures from those who support a change in the city’s governmental structure. The group submitted the petition to King County Elections and Federal Way on July 30.

Roughly 3,200 signatures were collected. King County Elections verified, on Sept. 20, that 2,207 of the petition’s signatures belonged to registered voters in Federal Way. State law required 1,825 valid signatures to be collected in order to place the elected mayor measure on a special election ballot.

The Federal Way City Council selected Feb. 19 as the day voters will see the issue on a special election ballot. Before a race for mayor could begin, a majority vote would be needed to pass the special election ballot measure in February. Meanwhile, the Federal Way City Council is scheduled to appoint a new mayor in January 2008, City Clerk Laura Hathaway said.

If the public approves the measure for an elected mayor, the mayor, whom the council will appoint in January, will serve in that position until the next general election, which would take place 91 to 180 days after the special election measure was approved, Deputy City Attorney Aaron Walls said.

The city council’s appointed mayor would then be forced to step down from his or her position, and the public’s elected mayor would take office. The elected mayor would serve in that spot for four years.

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About Ephrata:

Since incorporation in 1909, Ephrata, Wash., a city of about 8,000 people, had an elected mayor form of government, said Wes Crago, Ephrata city adminstrator.

In 1996, Crago led a push to change the government to a city council-city manger status because several residents were unsatisfied with the city’s mayor, who had been re-elected, he said.

The city staff remained the same, with the exception of the mayor, Crago said. The city administrator, who formerly took orders from the mayor, became the city manager, who then essentially ran the city, for example.

This form of government did not fit Ephrata as well as Crago imagined. Residents had the perception that only a mayor could get things accomplished and that city council members were not approachable, he said. The city manager was a friend of the council-appointed mayor and the public viewed the manager as biased, Crago said.

In 2002, the residents voted to switch the structure back to an elected mayor, Crago said. The city learned a valuable lesson. Residents in Ephrata prefer to have one person they can point to as a representative of their city.

“It’s about perception,” Crago said.

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