Mayor madness forces city into hot debate

By Bob Roegner, Inside Politics

For those who think you put the issue of Federal Way’s form of city government behind you with the election on Feb. 19, think again.

There are still those in the community who aren’t necessarily happy with the form of government, even though they didn’t want to go quite as far as implementing the “strong mayor” concept in the mayor-council form.

The most notable advocate for change is the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber opposed the Feb. 19 ballot measure, but also believes a separately elected mayor would give Federal Way more of a political face and voice.

Chambers of Commerce typically focus on business success and climate. The Federal Way Chamber is certainly a strong business advocate, but under CEO Tom Pierson and a string of outstanding chairs, the Chamber has broadened its vision to include “good government” ideas and discussions. Their Advancing Leadership program has helped train a new generation of community leaders, some of whom have run for public office.

Many Chambers have public spats with city government as a way to achieve a business or political goal. The Federal Way Chamber works in a much more sophisticated manner behind the scenes to try and find common ground to forge solutions.

As Pierson said, they didn’t view the Feb. 19 vote as the “end of the discussion, but the beginning.” Their preference is to look to a government such as Tacoma’s where the mayor is separately elected by the public, but is still a member of the city council.

The Tacoma mayor has no more direct power than a mayor in a council-manager system, but rather a more consistent voice and presence. But the Tacoma system does give the mayor significant “influence” if that person is clever enough to know how to use it.

Tacoma, like a small number of cities, also has a combination of “at large” and “district” council seats. The Chamber didn’t say much about this approach to council seats, and there are many in the community that understand political history enough to be rightfully concerned about implementing an old-fashioned “ward system” that requires politics and vote-trading to be successful. However, they do believe the structure of the mayor’s position is certainly worth discussing.

The biggest weakness in the Tacoma system is the reverse of what it offers. That is, the mayor has “only” a face and voice, and many citizens expect the mayor to deliver in ways that a strong mayor would.

It wasn’t that long ago that Tacoma was debating a change in its own government because of a scandal involving the police chief. Changing your form of government is always the answer.

The appropriate way to address the issue, if it needs addressing at all, is for the city council to form a committee to look at various forms of government and, along with Federal Way’s current perceived strengths and weaknesses, determine if there is a better way to do things.

For those of you who just slapped your head in frustration about the prospect of another government committee or study, relax, have another cup of coffee and think it through.

Putting an initiative on the ballot out of frustration to turn your government upside down is kind of backward to thoughtful debate, presentations of concept, structural comparisons and, of course, facts. The basic question is: “How does Federal Way’s city government function and where are there weaknesses? Would a structural change correct them?” The middle of an emotionally charged election isn’t necessarily the best place for reasoned debate. Although I must note many citizens learned a great deal about their government in the process.

If the structure is OK and on Feb. 19 we said it was; and if the officials are OK and we did elect them; and the staff must be OK because we re-elected their bosses; then if after all that you’re still unhappy, there’s only one place left to look — the mirror. Because most everybody else has decided that while not perfect, Federal Way is still pretty good.

Maybe it’s time to move on from the governmental structure debate and get some of our problems solved. City government needs to take an honest look at how it delivers both its services and its message, and seek to identify its weaknesses — then move to correct them. If not, ACT may surface again. After all, we’re only a few months from when candidates for city council will start thinking about running again.

Lastly, some pretty raw emotions surfaced in the election and a period of healing is probably a good idea.

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

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