Opinion

Want to walk in a mayor's shoes? | Bob Roegner

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be the mayor?

There isn’t a school you can attend to learn how to do it. There is training available after you are elected, which in some cases might be a little late.

There are plenty of people who will give you advice because to the untrained outsider, the job looks easy. Most people only see about 10 percent of the job.

You cut ribbons, kiss babies, give speeches, and preside at council meetings. How hard can that be?

Well, that’s the easy part.

You don’t have a direct supervisor, but you are accountable to everyone. The public expects you to know what to do in every situation, even if you don’t. You must  project the image that everything is in good hands because citizens and staff look to you for leadership and to inspire confidence.

Only someone who has been a mayor can truly understand what it is like to sit in the big chair where the buck actually stops. You will make mistakes. They are part of learning, but mistakes in the public arena have consequences that other jobs don’t have.

Any quote can become fodder for the press or the next person who wants your job.

Many people feel that if you have run a business, you can run City Hall. Some can, many can’t. The difference between managing a private business and managing in the public sector are as different as night and day. Everything you do or say is public. You don’t have a few hundred customers to keep happy. You have 90,000. And you can’t give an unhappy customer “a break,” just because you would like to. It’s usually illegal. Every mayor has faced a learning experience, like the Branches Garden Center fire code issue from last year, that requires you to follow the rules when it would be easy not to.

The only problems that land on your desk are the difficult ones where most of the options are equally bad. You usually will have at least a dozen or more of those you are juggling at any one time. If a problem is easy, someone else will have already taken care of it, and it will never get to you. Every decision will make some people angry and some people happy. The people you make angry will remember at election time. The people you make happy may or may not remember.

Under the law, the mayor has control of all the city employees and assets, and with that goes significant power to make changes and improve how City Hall provides services. By contrast, even the governor only directly controls about 60 percent of state government.

But that power needs to be handled carefully. Just because you have the power to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. And it takes awhile to learn the difference.

While you are the “boss” of all city employees, labor negotiations pit you against the very people you need to make City Hall run successfully. If there are disagreements, particularly with uniformed employees, you have to be careful how you handle the situation. If the police are unhappy, they have political leverage through the public that other employees don’t have. But, if you favor the police, other employees will take note, and it could undermine their confidence in you. You have to treat all employees the same, whether that employee carries a gun or a broom or a computer.

You are constantly balancing competing interests.

Neighborhoods, who want safe streets, well maintained parks and a policeman on every corner, always feel like City Hall pays more attention to the business community.

But as mayor, you need to support new businesses coming to town to help pay for the services your citizens want. However, not everyone agrees on what business is desirable for the community. Remember the medical marijuana outlets or the coffee shop with bikini baristas? You can designate under your zoning code “where” a business may locate, but usually not “if” it can locate. Although the state stepped in on the medical marijuana issue. And existing businesses sometimes want special treatment, such as P.J. Pockets Casino, on taxes.

Once an exception is granted, other businesses might have areas they want City Hall to change. As a result, you always try and make decisions that don’t set a precedent. These are decisions that can be guided by law, priorities or politics. But they are rarely easy. Some require the support of the city council, which opens a whole new dimension.

The city council provides a check and balance that usually is good, while other times not all that helpful. But you have to find a way to work with what is usually seven different personalities. The city council members sometimes have their own ideas about what the city priorities should be or how a particular problem should be handled. They may tend to take the short-term politically popular position. But the mayor is expected to think long-term and big picture.

You also have to learn how to work with about 40 other mayors, the county executive and council, members of the Legislature, and several state and federal agencies. Your first priority is always to do what you think is in the best interests of your citizens. All those other elected officials are doing the same thing, and sometimes that breeds conflict or disagreement. The Sound Transit light rail issue illustrates how difficult regional politics can be. At least one local mayor seems to feel that the partial solution to Federal Way’s transit difficulties may have harmed his interests.

As mayor, you have to work with all these people on almost a daily basis through intergovernmental committees. You will need their support for your projects, and they will want your support for their projects. Transit, social services and jails are examples where regional cooperation is needed, but can be challenging.

The press is another problem, but you really can’t do to much about them. Although, having a former mayor as the local political writer may be more than most mayors would like to endure.

About the only thing that prepares you to be a mayor is actually being mayor.

Being a quarterback in football is similar. If something goes wrong, you will get the blame. If something goes well, there are plenty of people to help you share the credit.

As mayor, there are only a few people you can talk to who will understand the issues and options you face. And sometimes it can be lonely at the top.

And yet, most mayors will tell you it is the most rewarding, and at the same time frustrating, job one could ever be honored enough to hold. But don’t ever think it’s easy.

 

 

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

 

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