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Elected mayor debate, round two: ACT vs. Federal Way Works

From left: Jim Burbidge and Jerry Vaughn of Federal Way Works, and city council member Jim Ferrell of Accountability Comes to Town, talk with debate moderator Dr. T.M. Sell on Monday at Federal Way High School. - Andy Hobbs/The Mirror
From left: Jim Burbidge and Jerry Vaughn of Federal Way Works, and city council member Jim Ferrell of Accountability Comes to Town, talk with debate moderator Dr. T.M. Sell on Monday at Federal Way High School.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/The Mirror

In a rematch from 2008, representatives from Federal Way Works and Accountability Comes to Town (ACT) debated the future of Federal Way's government.

City council member Jim Ferrell is leading ACT's efforts to install a strong mayor who would oversee day-to-day operations of the city. On Oct. 12, Ferrell faced off with Jim Burbidge and Jerry Vaughn, who defended Federal Way's council-manager form of government as worth keeping.

The debate was intense from the start. At one point, moderator Dr. T.M. Sell of Highline Community College had to curb the interruptions: "You guys are going to behave or do something else."

Ferrell said the current setup, in which seven elected council members choose a ceremonial mayor from their ranks, is unfair and undemocratic for voters. He said this scenario implies that Federal Way voters are not capable of choosing a mayor.

"Four people should not stand in the shoes of 88,000 people," he said of the current process.

Vaughn said this initiative (Proposition 1) is a knee-jerk reaction from angry people, and is not the way to change Federal Way's form of government. Such a proposition deserves careful study to determine which model will serve the city best, he said.

"It is going to be a major step backward for the city," Vaughn said. He said the use of city managers stems from corruption and malfeasance associated with strong mayors. City managers must demonstrate professional qualification such as training, experience and education, he said.

"To say something is wrong with that is a real disservice," Vaughn said. "Just because you're an effective politician does not mean you can be a good city manager."

Ferrell said an elected mayor would use executive leadership to quell violence at the transit center, for example. An elected mayor could also avoid wasting money on projects such as the Federal Way Community Center and a proposed $50 million performing arts center, he said.

Ferrell said an elected mayor will bring people closer to government and make government more responsive.

"This is about an opportunity," Ferrell said. "This is something I believe in."

Burbidge argued that the current form of government has helped Federal Way maintain a lower tax rate than neighboring cities, including Auburn and Kent, which have strong mayors.

The Federal Way Works supporters also raised the issue of ACT's campaign donations from sources outside of Federal Way — donations that total thousands of dollars.

"How could we raise that kind of money if people weren't frustrated?" Ferrell said.

Ferrell insisted there would be no improper sway from developers who donated to the ACT campaign. He cited Lee Rabie, a Seattle business owner who has given $10,000 to the effort so far. Rabie has been trying to build a home in Federal Way for 19 years, but gets the "runaround" from Federal Way government, Ferrell said.

Burbidge countered that Rabie and other developers want exemptions from land use laws, and are willing to pay money to see that happen.

"We're asked to believe developers are doing this altruistically," Burbidge said of the donations to ACT.

ACT's recent mail-delivered fliers were criticized by the Federal Way Works representatives as misleading and trying to "scare people into voting."

Burbidge said there's a potential for fraud and bribery with an elected mayor. He cited examples in New Jersey, Detroit and even Spokane, where a former mayor abused his position in a gay sex scandal and was eventually removed from office via a recall.

"We would be faced with the prospect of trying to get rid of this guy," Burbidge said of a scenario in which Federal Way had an incompetent or corrupt mayor.

Regarding term limits and longtime serving council members, Ferrell said it's time for some council members to step down, especially those who have served two or three terms: "It's just too long. This is not a professional political body."

Burbidge fired back.

"The only professional politician is the guy who wants to be mayor," he said, pointing at Ferrell. As for accountability, Burbidge said the seven elected council members are responsible and accessible, even if a community member doesn't get the response he/she likes: "All you have to do is go talk to (the council members)."

Ferrell criticized the cost of severance pay to fired city managers, but Burbidge countered that Ferrell voted for the severance of recent city manager Neal Beets.

The role of the city council will be trivialized by an elected mayor, Vaughn said. However, a city manager can be fired if he or she is not performing.

"That's checks and balances," Vaughn said. "The fact that we fired city managers means the system works."

Likewise, the council is elected to deal with the city's collective needs, not individual needs, Vaughn said.

"The council isn't as weak at deal-making as Ferrell would have you believe," Vaughn said. "Ferrell is unhappy because he hasn't generated support to be picked as mayor."

Another topic that surfaced was Tacoma's "hybrid" model, which utilizes an elected mayor as well as a professional city manager.

"Do you want a figurehead, or do you want to vote on who makes decisions on day-to-day operations?" Ferrell asked. "(Federal Way voters) do not have direct access to who the mayor will be. It is done over phone calls and whispers until a decision is reached."

Ferrell sees Proposition 1 as a transformational opportunity to "turn a page in the city's history."

"It's a systemic issue," Ferrell said. "The city council would still be a vital and central force in the city."

The differences: City manager vs. elected mayor

For the second time in as many years, a campaign to change Federal Way's form of government will go before voters. Proposition One — a measure that asks residents if they wish to switch from a city council/manager to city council/elected mayor system — will appear on the November general election ballot.

During a Sept. 16 public hearing, city attorney Pat Richardson presented information on how Federal Way's operating structure will change if residents approve of the change:

• A mayor, rather than city manager, will have executive authority.

• A mayor will be elected by the citizens. The city manager is currently hired by the city council.

• Only a recall election could remove an unwanted mayor. A majority city council vote now gets rid of a city manager.

• An elected mayor will be chosen for a four-year term. A city manager does not have a term limit.

• An elected mayor could select and fire the city's management staff without council input. Currently, a city manager also does this without needed confirmation from the council.

• The power to veto a majority vote by the city council will be awarded to an elected mayor. A city manager has no power to override the council's majority vote.

• An elected mayor could propose policies. A city manager can only recommend policies to the council.

• An elected mayor has the power to implement policies. A city manager also has this power after the policies are approved by the city council.

Under the current system, every two years the seven elected council members choose a mayor from within their ranks. This person is the face of the city, but does not have the executive authority to make lone decisions regarding the city and its residents. The tenure of the council members and the council's role as the legislative authority will not change if Proposition One passes.

The elected mayor issue last appeared on a special ballot in February 2008. It cost the city upwards of $100,000 to place the issue on that ballot. The public voted to keep the council/manager form of government. It will not cost the city to place Proposition One of the general election ballot.

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