Opinion

Strong mayor era reshapes Federal Way government | Bob Roegner

Last week, we looked at the structural alignments and the symbols of power in the new mayor-council form of government. This week, we will take a closer look at how implementation is affecting issues and policy in Federal Way.

In the strong mayor system, the community, staff and city council look to the mayor to lead. The mayor as the CEO has a much stronger and more consistent voice than a city manager or part-time mayor. He also has independent powers to make change. The council’s role shifts from policy leadership and supervision of the CEO\city manager to a check and balance on the administration. They still play a major role in city policy, but it is shared with the mayor.

Federal Way Mayor Skip Priest has been in office almost a year. Many of the issues he is dealing with were carried over from last year, such as a major downtown project, economic development and a budget that presents a significant challenge. Also, as typically happens, he has been confronted with other issues that weren’t on the work program, such as Sound Transit delaying the extension of light rail to Federal Way by several years.

Priest brings a passion to his new job that reflects his longtime community involvement.

During last year’s campaign for mayor, one of Priest’s goals was to implement a long-term sustainable budget. He has followed through on that promise and is working hard to accomplish it.  This is an area where city council members give him high marks for leadership and note the challenges of maintaining basic services, staffing public safety and confronting employee benefits while avoiding higher fees or taxes.

The council has also supported his efforts to try and reverse or improve the revised timeline for extension of light rail to Federal Way. However, they believe that this was a council-driven position and that he was late to react. Many in the community like the aggressive nature of the city’s strategy, but others are concerned that obtaining Sound Transit’s cooperation may be more beneficial in the long run.

Priest has good contacts at the county and state level. Regional leadership as a strong mayor can make a difference if the correct strategy is chosen.

A major area of business and community concern has been downtown. Priest came into office as a pro-business candidate vowing to improve City Hall’s ability to attract businesses and jobs.

After Twin Development was unable to meet city requirements for a skyscraper project, the city council started the process a second time. It resulted in the Crystal Palace proposal. This presents Priest with the most visible opportunity for success as a new strong mayor.

Priest was able to obtain council agreement to let himself and the staff work on refining the proposal. He now has a chance to make the project his own and be part of his vision for an improved Federal Way.

Since this approach is a key element of a strong mayor’s job description, it can help solidify his position.

This project, along with a performing arts\conference center, will serve as the signature drivers of the city’s economic development efforts.

The city’s long simmering dispute with Branches Garden Center over fire code violations raised questions about Priest’s commitment to business. But it also served noticed that his commitment isn’t open-ended — and rules are still expected to be followed. The Branches issue also needs to be considered in the context of other efforts.

Those efforts by Priest include working with the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce on a marketing campaign and reducing the average business license turnaround from seven days to three days.

These examples illustrate how a strong mayor can move faster than a city manager, but also reflect the political difference of accountability.

In the public mind, the responsibility and accountability rest with the mayor. When projects succeed, the mayor will get a lot of the credit and others will as well. But if a project or issue fails, the public — right or wrong — tends to blame the mayor. In Federal Way’s previous form of government, the public would have blamed the council.

Most members of the council really don’t see much change in how things get done and believe the council still has the stronger role. Some are pleased with that and admit they don’t want things to change very much. Others feel that if there isn’t going to be much difference, then why did we bother to the change the form of government? Still, others want the mayor to take a stronger lead role, even though they recognize it could jeopardize his relationship with the council.

“Getting along” and “working together” were mentioned by the mayor and some council members as important features during the transition phase. It is also an election year and everyone is being careful.

Some council members note that no one involved actually has experience in a strong mayor form of government. Not the council or the mayor or any of the key executive staff.

The city staff are respectful of both the mayor and the council, but some still view the council in its old “supervisory” role. One councilman said he thought some of the department heads had shown improvement under Priest while another said a couple are still a little too independent.

As one insider commented, everyone is learning on the job, which is never as easy as it appears from the outside. Council members say Priest has used the authority of the strong mayor system to accomplish some good changes during his first few months in office. But they also say he appears cautious in testing the limits of his authority while trying to stay on good terms with the city council.

As of now, the strong mayor system has not been fully implemented, nor has the council-manager system been fully discarded. There are elements of both still in place.

The mayor-council system contemplates a level of tension between the two branches. It exists beneath the surface as the council watches to see what the mayor will do. We haven’t seen it emerge because there hasn’t been much disagreement on policy.

Most council members believe Priest is a good transition mayor.

In 2012, the two-year contracts run out, elections may change the dynamics of the mayor-council relationship and major issues will again challenge the city.

Priest already knew a lot about City Hall before he became mayor. Now with a year on the job, he will put what he has learned into action during the next 12 to 15 months. Whether the strong mayor system is fully implemented will be determined not only by what gets done, but how.

This mayor and council are part of history. They are the first elected officials in the new form of government. If the mayor embraces the opportunities he has, as I suspect he will, he will be able to chart a course and implement a system that will not only be successful, but set the framework and tone for all future administrations.

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