Opinion

Challenging the deputy mayor's authority | Bob Roegner

At its last meeting, the Federal Way City Council affirmed what might have appeared as a series of boring adjustments in rules and procedures regarding the deputy mayor’s authority, status in office and how committees work.

But that was the culmination of several weeks of behind-the-scenes maneuvering that surfaced at the annual mayor-council retreat.

It might have appeared the council was only adjusting the rules to conform with past practice, or clarifying some “housekeeping” language to ensure common understanding. But it was much more than that.

The procedures clarified that in the new form of government, the election of the deputy mayor — unlike the mayor in the council-manager form — is not for a set two-year term, but can be changed at anytime by a majority vote of the council.

In other words, what the council gives, it can also take away at its whim. In the old form, the mayor is legally defined and serves a two-year term — and short of some breach of law or ethics, cannot be removed.

There were several other items that also sought to ensure that the deputy mayor cannot exercise independent authority over council members and council committees. They made the actions subject to council majority approval. On the surface, the changes might seem minor. But they were a direct shot across Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell’s bow and were a not-so-subtle reminder to tread more carefully. Here’s the background.

The question of the deputy mayor’s authority was raised to the city attorney by a member of the council prior to the annual mayor-council retreat. In discussions with the players, the retreat went along pretty well for the first seven hours. In fact, Mayor Skip Priest and Ferrell demonstrated their ability to work together and worked hard to establish a good agenda for discussion.

But the last hour exposed some simmering antagonism, some potentially fluid alliances and a brief glimpse of the challenge that face the eight elected officials as they try to not only lead the city, but figure out how they will work together.

Earlier this year, the city council elected Ferrell as deputy mayor by a 7-0 vote — although I mused in an earlier column that the real vote was probably 4-3. Ferrell’s votes were likely Roger Freeman, Susan Honda, Bob Celski and his own. Dini Duclos, Linda Kochmar and Jeanne Burbidge probably favored Burbidge. The unanimous vote was intended to show unity in public.

The deputy mayor in a strong mayor form of government is the council leader. As deputy mayor, Ferrell has the authority to work with Mayor Priest to set the council agenda, represent the mayor in his absence and appoint council committees.

However, it apparently didn’t sit well when Ferrell appeared to favor two of his supporters — the two newest council members, Honda and Celski — with chairmanships of two of the three council standing committees. He relegated the veterans, other than Duclos, to lower positions. All of the council members and the mayor had seen the retreat agenda and were aware that general items of procedure were to be discussed. Some have expressed surprise that the deputy mayor’s term of office and appointment power were raised in the public realm. Both Ferrell and Priest were hoping for a discussion that focused on policy issues, or truly minor procedural matters.

But some council members were not happy with the committee appointments. Ferrell probably did underestimate what some council members’ reactions might be.

Nobody actually believes the council would seriously consider removing Ferrell. Some just wanted to make a point, indelicate as it may have been.

In fact, several days after the retreat, some council members were changing their stories and softening their interpretation of the events. This suggests that all the feedback they received about the discussion wasn’t positive. And upon reflection, they may have reconsidered how the episode looked and its potential harm to relationships.

The council reached consensus on the items because there wasn’t much choice without making the situation more awkward than it already was. One issue is a correct legal interpretation, and the others are discretionary. Clarification may have been a good idea. But as political matters, they were significant.

This is a council that is still learning about one another, and also still learning how to work with the mayor. Dustups like this will happen. It’s part of the process and it seems unlikely to do permanent harm to their working relationships. There will be plenty of opportunities for debate on policy differences.

A lot depends on what lessons were learned. It was actually a positive sign that after thinking about it, some council members were spinning their view of events.

But how the working relationships mature will be something to watch.

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