Opinion

City appointments flunk transparency test | Bob Roegner

According to the dictionary, transparency is defined as “easily detected or seen through; clear.”

At the Jan. 4 Federal Way City Council meeting, Mayor Skip Priest announced the creation of two new departments and several appointments to his new administration, although it looked quite a bit like the old administration.

First, economic development director Patrick Doherty would retain that responsibility and also head the new combined department of Planning and Economic Development, replacing planning director Greg Fewins, who retired. The appointment canceled the search process for replacing Fewins.

Additionally, Priest announced that Bryant Enge, whose job was scheduled to be phased out at the end of the year, would become director of the newly created Administrative Services Department. That department would include the city budget, technology, intergovernmental relations and human services. The search for a new cabinet-level HR director was also halted, and that position was filled at a different level. Priest announced that the appointments were effective immediately.

The positions of planning director and human services director had been designated by the city council as subject to “confirmation” last year when they were updating ordinances to comply with the change to a strong mayor form of government. Public confirmation hearings are reserved for positions that head major departments of city government or have a significant impact on public policy.

This check and balance on the mayor’s power of appointment is intended to provide assurance that the candidates are qualified to hold the positions — and also take any comments from residents who might have information, or an opinion, about the candidates or the departments they have been selected to lead.

The announcements, which were not listed in the agenda, came at the end of the council meeting and took most in attendance by surprise.

Had outside candidates been appointed, confirmation by the city council would have been required. Doherty and Enge were already in city government. They did not need to be confirmed to the jobs they already held. But appointing them to lead new departments that were significantly different than their present positions raised questions as to whether they would — or should — be subject to a public airing of their credentials to hold such positions.

The planning department and the city budget may be the two most visible responsibilities in city government, next to the police department. Residents might be interested in sharing their observations about the candidates or how the departments are performing. They could be interested in hearing the nominee’s goals and objectives for the departments, or any questions the city council might have. A public forum could provide those opportunities.

Other residents might want to know why — with all of the government cutbacks and available outside talent — the mayor didn’t conduct a competitive search. Doherty and Enge could have applied.

The public expects reassurance that the best people available are running city departments. Without a competitive search, or at least a public hearing, how would the public know?

On Jan. 11, I emailed the city attorney’s office and asked when confirmation hearings would be held. Her opinion: “Since they are not new directors ... and are known to the council, the confirmation process wouldn’t apply to them.” That struck me as one of the more unique legal interpretations I had heard. Having knowledge of them might be a reason for the council to consider waiving the confirmation requirement, but not to ignore it without public discussion.

If the council were going to take its new responsibilities seriously, then at a minimum, the council needed to hold a discussion that the public could hear and offer comment. Then, the council could have decided whether to schedule confirmation hearings or waive the requirement.

I asked if such a discussion had been held. To my surprise, my email was referred to the mayor’s office. The city attorney’s office declined to answer any more of my questions as privileged information to be shared only with the mayor and council.

It felt like a stone wall had suddenly been erected. Usually, City Hall is far more cooperative.

After waiting several days with no response from the mayor’s office, I started contacting council members to determined when or if the council was going to address the issue. Over the next few weeks, I did hear from council members, but their comments parroted those of the city attorney — although some thought they had already approved the appointments.

Like most people, I don’t go to every council meeting. But I usually read the agendas, which failed to reflect any discussion about these appointments. So I started combing through agendas and staff reports and watching replays of council meetings.

Next week: What I found and what likely happened.

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