Federal Way government: How we got here

By Bob Roegner, Inside Politics

The hottest political topic in town is the debate about whether we should continue our current council-manager form of government or switch to a mayor-council form.

As someone who served as a full-time mayor in a mayor-council form, but who has also held several appointed government management positions, I have been repeatedly asked if I was going to write any columns on this topic.

Admittedly, I have been somewhat reluctant due to my fear that either someone might feel I was not objective or someone might actually take my opinion more seriously than they should.

However, when I raised that concern to my Cougar friend Bob Hitchcock, his uninhibited laughter assured me that anyone taking my thoughts or comments seriously was a remote possibility.

With that ringing endorsement and my conscience clear, I will devote the next few columns to this topic and provide objective, if not insightful, observations based on firsthand knowledge of how government works.

Today, here are the politics that got us here.

Several years ago, when Federal Way was in the process of becoming a city, numerous community meetings were held to discuss which form of government should be chosen.

As the mayor of Auburn, I was a guest speaker on many occasions and was asked to extol the virtues of the mayor-council system. There was always a guest city manager or someone from the Municipal Research Services Center (MSRC) to provide the counter balance in the council-manager system.

At one meeting, I became bored with always giving the same position and since I was first to speak, I spoke of the strengths of the city manager system — leaving the perplexed guest city manager in the awkward position of advocating for the mayor system, which he opposed.

My off-beat sense of humor not withstanding, my overall advocacy in Federal Way for the mayor-council system was apparently less than persuasive, as after many months of exhaustive deliberations, the council-manager system was selected.

For a new city unsure where it was going, and with significant issues to address, it was probably the safest and wisest choice at the time.

I have known or worked with all of Federal Way’s city managers, and they all brought different areas of strength to the job.

During the intervening years, Federal Way’s officials have been faced with significant land use, transportation, and social and economic challenges that have resulted in policy shifts, new directions and changes in elected and appointed leaders.

Rather than dwell on problems inherited from county government, Federal Way now makes its own decisions and looks inward for solutions.

Much good has occurred here in the past 15 years, but it comes at a price, and that price is disagreement and lack of consensus. Not everyone is always happy with every decision, and many feel disaffected when their viewpoint doesn’t prevail.

When that happens, and it happens in every city, some look for solutions outside the current system. Here in Federal Way, it has led to our current debate.

But the debate isn’t new. In 2006, a group tried unsuccessfully to gather signatures for this initiative, and prior to that, another group formed to elect members of the council who might share more of their viewpoints.

Every form of government has its strengths and weaknesses, depending on your view of government’s role or its responsiveness.

In some of the mayor-council cities, there have been movements to change to the council-manager form. Usually, this has been brought about by something the mayor has done or a project he or she has advocated that some in the community didn’t agree with.

The Accountability Comes to Town (ACT) group is advocating for the change to an elected mayor in Federal Way for some of the same reasons. The Federal Way Works group prefers to retain the current system.

Both are raising money to present their arguments, and both are passionate in their beliefs.

But we all get to decide, so listen closely to their arguments.

On Jan. 30, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of the mayor-council system; on Feb. 6, the council-manager system; and on Feb. 13, I’ll share some final thoughts and a recommendation.

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

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