Evaluating elected officials

My first reaction is to be flattered when someone asks for my opinion, but what is the right response when a City Council member asks you: “How am I doing?” Recently, when asked this question, my in the moment response was vague but, my unspoken thoughts were incredulous. What I should have said, in that unique pause after the question was asked, was, “you and your peers are collectively mediocre.”

Reflecting on the question that was asked, and the way it was asked, made me realize that is the wrong question. The question they all need to be asking for validation is: “Are we making the right decisions as a council to build a better future for Federal Way?” In either case, most residents won’t know how to answer. Most people think small, live only in the moment and rarely understand any City Council activities unless they are directly affected.

I appreciate this council member wanting to make a difference – they all do. Most of us do not think about what elected officials truly are, but realize that first, they are volunteers. They may get paid or not, but the very act of volunteering to run and serve gives them a degree of respect. Maybe it is warranted because most of us are unwilling to run, serve, read the documents required to understand the issues, attend multiple meetings, be responsible for decisions made and live with the scrutiny required to be an elected official.

While they want us all to believe that they are serving our best interests and the act of being elected somehow gives them a superior skill set to lead and make a difference, the truth is that most elected officials are politically ineffective people with inflated egos. A prime example is our state Legislature’s recent effort to absolve themselves of public records scrutiny earlier this year. What a bunch of self-serving putzes.

The people that generally make a difference in our daily lives are the professional staffs of each municipality, county and state, as well as the federal government. Within their ranks, there are people of all capabilities who make sure the potholes get filled all the way up to researching new ideas, drafting policies, preparing budgets as well as a myriad of other documents for review and public consumption.

They run the gamut of being extraordinarily capable public servants to people showing up for a paycheck. But most tend to be journeyman trying to do a consistent and proper job with the tools and direction received. In Federal Way, it is the mayor’s challenge to keep them engaged, producing results and finding ways to chart a better course for this city’s future. The city council is a consumer of their work.

That said, I’d rather have had the council member ask about a few of the challenges actually facing this city, like creating sustainable revenue streams to assure current and future growth or the reality that Federal Way is a becoming a business desert. We could have talked about community aesthetics, cultural infrastructure or the need for code enforcement to be more proactive in assuring that defined standards are maintained.

Discussing the benefits of a crime watch program combined with the fact that crime overall is down would have been an interesting topic. Hey, crime watch and safe cities are important tools that when combined with steadily improving neighborhoods will attract businesses and residents to this city.

Does Federal Way have the potential to become an attractive city to residents with higher expectations, education, and incomes, who could help alleviate the business desert, fill the empty office space and increase Federal Way’s overall value? Figuring out how to achieve this end would have been a very interesting discussion.

Even talking about every city’s favorite current crisis subject – homelessness – would have been more meaningful than answering the Linus blanket insecurity question of how am I doing. At least with homelessness we can talk about the gradual failure of our society. Failure caused by off-the-rails ideologically driven politicians, mostly in one party, who for the last 40-plus years have been working diligently to unwind the social safety net, destroy unions and health care, while increasing corporate welfare and transferring wealth to the top one-percent so that it can trickle back down.

Serving on City Council is not a popularity contest. Yes, you may have won an election, but check your ego at the door and quit acting like each week is an episode of “Survivor” and you get to be a star.

Being an elected official can be one of the toughest “volunteer” jobs anywhere, especially if you do it with the intent of improving the community and serving with integrity. It is about listening and engaging with residents, staff, governmental entities at multiple levels while consuming volumes of information in order to be prepared to facilitate discussions and participate in the decision process. It is about leadership.

Showing up at every local event and ribbon cutting are insignificant actions when compared to the challenge of having and sharing tangible forward thinking ideas. Dealing with the pettiness of council politics is part of the process. Contending with the capriciousness and fickleness of the electorate is also normal.

Truthfully, I do not care how “you” are doing. I want to know what “you” and your fellow council members are doing to create a sustainable revenue structure, attract quality businesses and higher-income jobs and improve neighborhoods and cultural activities in order to build a better present and future for all of us in Federal Way.

Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at keithlivingstondesign@gmail.com.

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