Opinion

Federal Way's potential political misfire | Bob Roegner

A seemingly innocuous item may have long-term political repercussions for Federal Way.

The city council recently approved Mayor Skip Priest’s request to hire a lobbyist to lead Federal Way’s legislative efforts. The approval has raised questions among some local and regional leaders, and may have opened an old wound.

The motion to hire MJ Durkan Inc. was passed 5-0 with council members Kochmar and Freeman abstaining. They are running for the Legislature, and Durkan sometimes teams with Ehren Flygare in his lobbying efforts. Flygare is the son of Roger Flygare, who is also running for the Legislature.

After the meeting, some council members started to have second thoughts. It had less to do with Durkan, who has a good reputation, than it was the wording in the staff report.

The report has raised questions about the city’s priorities, staff relationships and political credit for $24 million designated by Sound Transit to help Federal Way with regional transit.

In addition to lobbying on state issues, federal lobbying was added to Durkan’s contract, as was economic development. The overall cost of the two-year contract was $124,000 plus $6,000 in expenses. This raised some eyebrows in tight budget times. More questions seemed to surface about whether the city needed to restore a lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., which had been cut from the budget in 2010.

However, of more concern was adding economic development to Durkan’s portfolio. Some council members asked, “isn’t that Patrick Doherty’s job?” Doherty has held both the economic director and planning director jobs since Priest first reorganized departments after his election as mayor.

Some council members said they felt in the dark as to who was in charge of economic development, and how Durkan and Doherty’s responsibilities would relate to one another. They felt attempts to obtain clarity prior to the council meeting were unsuccessful.

But the staff report, approved by the mayor’s office, also appeared to move political credit for Sound Transit’s $24 million addition to the south link to Federal Way to Durkan and City Hall, and away from King County Council member Pete von Reichbauer and State Sen. Tracey Eide, who were not mentioned.

As readers may recall, Sound Transit announced almost two years ago that due to the economic downturn, the south link from SeaTac Airport to S. 272nd Street would be delayed for several years until the economy improved in the south sub-area, which includes Federal Way and Auburn among others.

Mayor Priest and the city council hired lobbyists, including Durkan, to pursue what one person described at the time as a “scorched earth” policy toward Sound Transit through various political avenues, including the state Legislature.

At the time, many regional and state leaders affiliated with, or supportive of Sound Transit, were angered by the city’s approach as being overly confrontational and excessive, rather than constructive.

Eide and von Reichbauer teamed up to work with Sound Transit board members and staff to fashion a package that would provide $24 million — and help the project become shovel ready when the revenue stream improved.

But the political price tag for support from other key regional players, outside Federal Way, was that city political leaders were excluded from all the behind the scenes discussion as von Reichbauer and Eide put the package together.

Further, the city was not informed of the press conference, which announced the deal as a pointed message that in the future, cooperation might be a wiser approach. The package was passed by the Sound Transit board.

However, one person said that Durkan, and the city, deserved the credit because they created such a big political problem that Sound Transit wanted to get the issue out of the public arena, and that the pressure helped create an opening for a solution.

Another said that line of thinking was “revisionist thinking,” as the city’s attacks actually made finding a solution much harder for von Reichbauer and Eide. Many Sound Transit Board members were reluctant to reward Federal Way for their actions. One council member was “stunned” the paragraph crediting Durkan, and by extension City Hall, was included because intended or not, it came across as a “shot” at von Reichbauer and Eide. That paragraph gave the appearance of trying to take credit that should have gone to them.

The speaker went on to say “we are going to need Pete and Tracey” and this doesn’t help. Another echoed that comment.

When asked about the issue, the city spokesperson did not back away from the controversial language. The spokesperson did say the city was appreciative of von Reichbauer and Eide’s leadership and provided a copy of the city press release from February regarding the Sound Transit press conference to announce the $24 million.

However, that press release was also controversial at the time. While it thanks von Reichbauer and Eide, it also nudges credit toward the city, while including additional critical comments of Sound Transit’s bus service efforts.

As one regional insider said about the city press release at the time: “Your County Council member, State Senator and Sound Transit just bailed you out, and you try and take credit while also attacking the agency that gave $24 million to your project?”

It should be noted that, not surprisingly, no one wanted to speak for attribution due to the sensitive nature of all the political relationships, and von Reichbauer, Eide and Durkan declined comment.

Is this a minor dust-up that will stay behind the scenes, or is this a bigger issue that will have repercussions?

Only time will tell. On the local front, clearly some council members felt like they didn’t get all their questions answered and felt pressured to approve the lobbying contract before they were ready. They still have questions about the city’s priorities, economic development goals and vision of the future.

There also is confusion about staff relationships and job assignments in the economic development arena that still need to be addressed.

While the city may have unnecessarily reopened a wound in regional relationships that many had hoped was closed, or at least had a bandage, it seems unlikely to have long-term repercussions.

The city is not likely to pursue such an anti-Sound Transit strategy during the next legislative session, as the chances for success are relatively small. Further deterioration of political relationships are not in Federal Way’s best interests.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the episode.

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