Mayor issue: A solution in search of a problem

By Bob Roegner, Inside Politics

The dust hasn’t quite settled and there are still a few absentees to come in, but it appears the movement to change Federal Way’s form of government from council-manager to mayor-council has failed.

At this writing, the yes vote was 46.4 percent and the no vote was 53.6 percent. That’s about 1 percent off my pre-election forecast, but in political terms, it was a solid win for the pro city manager forces.

So what’s the message in all of this? Well, there are several.

The low turnout of just over 20 percent says most people apparently aren’t all that upset about City Hall.

If they were, the turnout would have been much higher. People who are angry will turn out and vote. That reflects Federal Way’s recent political history where most incumbents ran unopposed or won comfortably.

In the race for the open council seat last fall, none of the candidates ran against City Hall, and it’s only been a little over a year since we voted to raise our own taxes to support many city improvements.

There also hasn’t been a firestorm of opposition to any particular issue, and the council chambers have been mostly empty — not full of outraged citizens.

So, many voters logically asked, “What’s all the fuss about?” And one prominent community leader described this issue as a “solution in search of a problem.”

Accountability Comes to Town (ACT) ran a reasonably good campaign with excellent signs, good mailers and mostly good letters to the editor. They also had a clear message that made their point easily.

However, some of ACT’s leaders previously had issues with city government, which raised questions in some voters’ minds about their motivation.

That, along with the group’s perceived advocacy for one of the council members to become mayor, were also factors.

The “Federal Way Works” group also had an effective campaign, but its first set of signs could not be read from a car at 35-40 mph, which is the standard test for political signs. Their second set was better.

Federal Way Works had most of the community’s opinion makers on its side, which helped, but its message was less clear. And advocating for “effective city management” strikes some as an oxymoron and others as boring.

The strong mayor form of government is by definition more political. Had the Federal Way Works group focused more on its real message, which was “say no to politics,” it might have provided a less muddled message.

Others in the community were troubled by the election costs of $70,000 to $100,000 when their perception was it “isn’t broken ... in need of improvement, but not broken.”

But there is a deeper message that comes from the community self-reflection that this campaign generated.

The Federal Way School District levy was on the same ballot and passed with over 60 percent. That means a lot of people who voted for supporting the school district also voted to change the city form of government.

Given those who typically vote in a February election, the yes vote for the school district and the no vote on city change should have been closer. An eight point differential with this voting demographic is noteworthy.

The message to City Hall should be that they need to reach out to the neighborhoods and re-establish a bond of involvement. That’s not to say the Federal Way City Council members don’t listen — because they do. You only have to remember the library location vote to see that.

But sometimes it’s the perception and sometimes it’s how you present the message in addition to the substance.

Mayor Jack Dovey’s neighborhood meetings are a start. But the neighborhoods need a more in-depth and longer commitment to their issues. They need to truly feel included and listened to.

While the ACT group didn’t win, the group did raise an issue of inclusion that resonates beyond its goal and one the city needs to address.

Like many of you, I have a strong passion for government and what it can do to better the lives of its residents.

If the city doesn’t take an honest look at the lessons from this election, the feeling of discontent that some feel might become more pervasive.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn: bjroegner@comcast.net.

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