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Backdoor endorsement for mayor? Candidate says school board crossed the line

Pictured left to right: School board members Claire Wilson, Angela Griffin and Danny Peterson, former State Rep. Skip Priest, Superintendent Rob Neu, and school board members Ed Barney and Tony Moore. - Courtesy photo
Pictured left to right: School board members Claire Wilson, Angela Griffin and Danny Peterson, former State Rep. Skip Priest, Superintendent Rob Neu, and school board members Ed Barney and Tony Moore.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

The Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) Board of Directors recently recognized Mayor Skip Priest's work on securing education funding during his time as a state legislator. However, Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell was a bit perturbed by the recognition, believing it to be an indirect endorsement of the mayor in an election year.

"I think it was pretty dubious, it's kind of a head scratcher, that they would wait three years to recognize the mayor," said Ferrell, who is Priest's opponent for mayor this year. "It would have had a lot more legitimacy if done two years ago, or a year ago. I think the timing speaks for itself. It doesn't really pass the logic test."

Ferrell's objection to the recognition is one that is, oddly enough, raised consistently at Federal Way City Council meetings. Priest and City Attorney Pat Richardson remind the public that City Hall and the public comment podium are not the place for endorsing a candidate, or speaking out against a candidate or current council member.

"The mayor, as you know, before any council comments are ever delivered…restates that city/government resources cannot be used for political purposes, and then has the city attorney say the same thing," Ferrell noted. "It's disappointing and questionable. Everybody in this community knows there's an election in this community for mayor. I think it's questionable and it's clearly a use of public resources."

School Board President Tony Moore said the recognition was not a case of political gamesmanship, but rather that it was a recognition of the work Priest did in the past in Olympia.

"We recognized the mayor's contribution to education, which is very long and distinguished," Moore said. "For the first time in my tenure and in 10 years, because of the work 'Representative Priest' did, we actually got money to restore all-day kindergarten and eliminate student and family fees. Our system was strengthened for the first time because of the seeds planted by Priest. We wanted to recognize that his service has been exemplary, and unfortunately, it wasn't until this year that his work bore fruit."

Moore added that he hopes the board's recognition of Priest will motivate and inspire Federal Way's representatives in Olympia going forward.

"We're hoping…to inspire those who currently serve in the Legislature to do the same as well," he said.

Ferrell's objection, and the city's regular admonition, come from the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 42.17. The most relevant part of the code appears to be the subsection titled "Use of public office or agency facilities in campaigns."

The RCW indicates that "no elective official nor any employee of his or her office nor any person appointed to or employed by any public office or agency, may use or authorize the use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office or for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition."

The RCW further defines the rule by stating "facilities of a public office or agency include, but are not limited to, use of stationery, postage machines and equipment, use of employees of the office or agency during working hours, vehicles, office space, publications of the office or agency, and clientele lists of persons served by the office or agency."

In an email to The Mirror, Lori Anderson of the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) offered a perspective on the interpretation of the RCW and recognition of Priest. She said there's a gray area with this state law, and there is no precedent for comparison. Nevertheless, she said the school board's action seems "suspect."

"I don’t think it’s an endorsement by the school district. A government agency doesn’t have to be making an endorsement, though, to run afoul of the law that prohibits an agency from using tax dollars to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures," she wrote, referring to RCW 42.17A.555. "It seems suspect to me that the school district would recognize Mayor Priest for his work as a legislator now, during his re-election campaign, since it has been three years since he was a legislator."

FYI

• Ferrell has been on the council since 2003, and was Priest's challenger in the last mayoral election in 2010. He currently works as a senior deputy prosecutor for the King County Prosecutor Office. Priest is the city's first "strong mayor," following a reorganization of city government away from a "city manager" form in 2009. Before that, Priest served in the state Legislature from 2003-10, and has been involved in the city government since Federal Way was incorporated in 1990.

• The city attorney recently apologized for improperly citing RCW 42.17 to block a Federal Way resident from commenting during a city council meeting about an investigation of the mayor. Click here to read more.

 

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