Examining the mayor's power | Bob Roegner

In 2009, Federal Way voters significantly altered the political and managerial structure of City Hall from council-manager to mayor-council. While the vote was not an overwhelming repudiation of one system or an embrace of the other, the majority voted to implement a strong mayor form of government.

In 2010, State Rep. Skip Priest defeated three other candidates to become the city’s first popularly elected mayor. He assumed office in late November. That started the actual transition of power.

In the strong mayor form, the day-to-day management of City Hall and much of the political leadership is transferred to the mayor. The city council’s role shifts from supervisors of the city manager and policy/political leadership to providing a check and balance relationship to the mayor and city administration. The council still retains a separate political leadership role, but the mayor is the head of government and the leader of the city.

Now that we have elected the mayor, how is the implementation of the new form of government going? Has the city council transferred powers to the mayor, or has it been reluctant? Is the mayor exercising his authority? What’s different?

I asked those and other questions of the mayor, council, city staff and community leaders. Not surprisingly, there are different points of view.

Citizens can change the structural relationship between the legislative and executive arms of government. Whether it is fully implemented may be more a product of personality and philosophy.

Today we compare Federal Way with cities of about the same size that have had a strong mayor form of government for many years.

Historically, a strong mayor appoints residents to city boards and commissions to provide advice and recommendations to the city council on city programs and policies. The city council then confirms or rejects the appointment. Citizens with an interest or talent in that discipline are usually appointed, but it may also be an appointment of a friend or political ally.

All cities surveyed and most others follow this traditional procedure.

In Federal Way, the council previously held both the appointment and confirmation authority in the council-manager form. When considering the issue last year, the council chose to retain both powers rather than relinquish the appointment portion to the mayor. When asked about it, some said they might consider reallocating that authority to the mayor if he asked for it. But the majority felt the council should continue to perform that function and would be reluctant to give it to the mayor. Currently the mayor has no role.

Interestingly, some citizen board members have felt like they are expected to be rubber stamps to the council.

Mayor Priest says he hasn’t given much thought to the power of appointments and has been focused on more important issues such as the budget.

Under the law, the mayor is the chief executive and all employees work for the mayor. Typically, city councils do not have their own staff.

The council receives policy recommendations from the mayor’s administration through his department heads. However, the council needs assistance in carrying out its ministerial functions. In all but one city surveyed, the mayor assigns a staff person from the legal or finance departments, or the city clerk’s office, to assist the council. The staff person is supervised and evaluated by the administration. In one city, there is a longstanding “arrangement” that provides the council its own staff person.

In Federal Way, the council does recognize all employees work for the mayor. However, when establishing the rules, the council made the council assistant position subject to council confirmation — to ensure they got who they wanted in the job. The council also gave itself the authority to evaluate the person. This is unusual and is an intrusion into the mayor’s authority, but only if the mayor challenges it.

Questionable or not, some council members fully expect to retain the evaluation authority even though the staff person only spends about 25 percent of their time on council business and the council is part time. Since the mayor has the authority to assign anyone he wants to assist the council, and determine if the council has any role in the process, this may be an issue at some point.

Priest says he isn’t sure how the evaluation will work.

Another area that was reviewed was assignment to regional committees. All cities follow the same process as Federal Way, and the eight elected officials work it out informally amongst themselves. The mayor by virtue of his position automatically serves on some regional boards. What committees the mayor serves on next year will help enhance his role in the region.

Similar to other cities, the council’s leader is the deputy mayor, who assigns council members to council committees. The council may or may not ask for the mayor’s input.

The head of the council differs by jurisdiction. In some cities, it is called the deputy mayor or mayor pro temper. In most cities, that person is called the council president to differentiate from the administration. Federal Way had both a mayor and a deputy mayor in the council-manager form and has retained the deputy mayor terminology to designate the head of the council.

In most cities, the mayor appoints major policy positions such as department heads, and they are subject to confirmation by the city council. The mayor’s personal staff such as executive assistant, public information officer and inter-governmental affairs are not typically subject to confirmation by the council, nor are staff positions that do not head a major department or function. The confirmation process is a check and balance on the mayor to ensure qualified candidates are being hired. It is not intended to be a political process, but can be at times.

Federal Way’s approach includes confirmation, but it is vague and we haven’t seen how it will actually work with a new hire. Although, we may get the opportunity: a couple of department heads have recently been finalists for other positions.

I have written before about the two-year contracts that the council extended to department heads. Well intended or not, it was a highly unusual move and the net effect diminished the mayor’s ability to choose his own management team by a third of his term in office. The mayor chose not to challenge the contracts, which will soon run out.

As with other cities, the mayor does have veto authority as part of the checks and balances process, although that authority has not been exercised yet.

Setting the agenda for the council meeting is mixed.

In Federal Way, the deputy mayor sets the agenda, but includes the mayor and two council members who chair specific council committees in the discussion.

Interestingly, it is the mayor who has allowed the council to share one of his powers. The awarding of proclamations is a mayoral prerogative that honors worthy individuals and programs. Mayor Priest has continued the old process of council involvement and has them go through a council committee, and all council members sign them. This is a rare approach.

Overall, Federal Way is pretty close to other cities in their application of legislative and executive relationships.

However, in two of the most important areas, appointments to boards and commissions and council staff, the city council has been reluctant to relinquish authority usually held by the mayor.

Mayor Priest does not have some of the same powers his fellow mayors have. The fact that we are almost one year into the mayor’s term and these powers haven’t apparently been raised is surprising. In the big picture, these powers are small and usually get raised behind the scenes in the first month a new mayor is in office.

With so many other big problems facing city leaders, are these symbols of power worth a debate, since the council seems reluctant to change? That’s what makes the debate worth having.

Some council members acknowledged they don’t really want to change very much and note the mayor seems comfortable with the systems that were in place when he was mayor previously in the council-manager form of government. And so far, everyone seems to get along.

Did we really change the form of government? Some observers suggest what we may have is a hybrid mixture of the two forms.

Next week, a closer look at policy relationships.

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