Opinion

On-the-job challenges for Federal Way's mayor | Bob Roegner

What’s your plan for the performing arts and conference center? How about economic development, downtown, traffic congestion, crime, school dropouts or panhandlers? What about the downtown tower project? Also, since election night, the city let 15 people go, but we are still paying them, and by the way there was a police shooting and the Federal Way City Council passed the budget. Any thoughts on those issues?

Those are just a few of the questions that our new Mayor Skip Priest is likely to face from City Hall staff and the public.

We have a new form of government and a new mayor. Both are untested, but inspire hope and high expectations. Compared to actually governing, the campaign may look like the easy part. Priest faces real problems and not much money to confront them. To the average citizen, the job of mayor looks easy. It’s not. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No vacations, and time with your family is rare. It’s a job you can’t really appreciate unless you have done it.

Many years ago several seasoned city managers and full-time mayors shared some thoughts with me. I thought it might be helpful to pass them along to Mayor Priest. It will give the reader some perspective as well.

The position you just won will be part of history and so will you. Think about what you want the city to look like and feel like in 10 years. What problems should be solved by then? Then, implement your agenda accordingly. Take a look at the city survey from 2008 and see how much progress has been made.

Learn from the mistakes of others. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is by all accounts a nice guy. But he forgot the campaign ended when he got elected. McGinn’s stubbornness on the tunnel is distracting time and resources from other goals. The campaign is over, forget about it. Some people who supported your opponent are some of the people you are going to need to actually get things done in this city. Reach out to them — in the long run, it will pay dividends. And remember all those people who helped you get elected? Most of them wanted you to win because they thought you were the best candidate. But some have other agendas. Treat everyone the same, supporters and opponents alike.

You just spent six months listening to people for their ideas as well as sharing your own. Now it is time to put those into action. Identify the top 10 to 15 specific goals that you want to reach by the end of 2011. Communicate those to the staff, city council and community. That way, everyone knows what direction we are headed.

Some development interests are expecting you to hand them a building permit next week. It won’t be that easy. Internally at City Hall, economic development pits those trying to create jobs against those trying to regulate safety and avoid haphazard development. Both are needed, manage wisely. When you get complaints from citizens, don’t react until you have talked to your staff. You will find the majority of the time that there was more to the story than the citizen told you and the city staff probably did the right thing. If they did, you need to support them and explain it to the citizen. If not, it’s a good opportunity to provide guidance to staff about your expectations.

There is a culture to every place of business, including City Hall, that helps employees cope with the stress and pressure of the work place. Learn its rituals and how they affect morale. Employees will look to you to set the tone. Influence it where needed, but be cautious. These employees have gone through a lot and their morale may need a lift. The lowest paid employee works just as hard as the highest. Take time to thank them.

You will be evaluating the city staff to see how they perform. At the same time, they are evaluating you as a boss. You need to gain their trust and respect. If you do, it will make it a lot easier to get things done and recruit for vacancies when they occur. They all belong to professional organizations, and you want Federal Way to have a reputation as a good place to work. Despite the best efforts of the council and staff, to outsiders we have looked somewhat politically unstable the past three years.

You need to make sure that you have key staff who can tell you when one of your ideas is “dumb” and not have to fear getting fired. Their professional candor will keep you out of trouble. One nearby city only hires “yes” people and it shows in the decisions.

In your new position you will receive far more scrutiny than you ever have before. On the council, you were one of seven. In the legislature, you were one of 150. Now you are one of one. The buck stops with you.

Remember, the press isn’t your enemy, although it may feel like it at times. They will have opinions about what you do or don’t do. It goes with the territory. Don’t take it personally. Make sure your administration speaks with one voice. Poor communication undermines credibility.

Nothing easy will ever end up on your desk. If it were easy, someone else would have already taken care of it. Between daily city business and regional committee meetings, you may not always have time to be as deliberative as you would like. Sometimes you will have to make decisions on the fly. Trust your staff — it is in their best interest to help you, and they will.

Everyone who supported your opponent will be watching you. Everyone who wants to go back to the city manager form of government will be watching you, as will others who may want your job in three years. I’m sure you are aware that there has already been some background grumbling and you have only been in office for a week. It will happen. Get used to it.

At this level, “you play with live ammo,” meaning all words and actions have meaning. Something can and will explode in your hand when you least expect it. Listen and learn, but in the end do what you think is right.

Lastly, we have been a divided community for three years and the emotions are still raw. Rightly or wrongly, much of the responsibility for healing falls to you. Congratulations and good luck, Mr. Mayor.

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