Opinion

Federal Way mayor's record is up for debate | Roegner

Skip Priest, as seen during his 2010 campaign for mayor of Federal Way. - File photo
Skip Priest, as seen during his 2010 campaign for mayor of Federal Way.
— image credit: File photo

Mayor Skip Priest is one of the most well known figures in town.

He was a city council member and mayor in the council-manager form of government. He also served in the state Legislature and is a Republican. He was elected as Federal Way’s first “strong mayor” two years ago after a public vote to change the form of government.

To ensure consistency of the election cycle, he was elected to a three-year term and will be up for re-election this year — as will three positions on the city council. Priest has not confirmed he will run, but all the signals suggest that he will. He won the mayor’s office by defeating Councilmember Jim Ferrell with a comfortable but not overwhelming margin.

Typically, mayors seeking a second term are difficult to beat, and Priest will be as well. But what he has accomplished, or not accomplished, as mayor may be the major news story of the year.

One of Priest’s main priorities from the election has been to work with the city council to try and build a short- and long-term sustainable city budget amid a major economic downturn. This has resulted in several cuts to staffing and his decision to turn down a federal grant for additional police officers due to concern about whether the positions could be sustained.

Two officers were added in this year’s budget and the option of another grant will be revisited again this year. Although these additions were initiated by Ferrell and Councilmember Dini Duclos, Priest supported them and notes that crime is down and police protection is on par with other cities of similar population.

The current two-year budget is balanced, as required by law, but projections farther out remain a challenge. The suburban city jail, SCORE, which Federal Way is part of, continues to be a major financial drain. Priest has been pushing to increase the marketing for the jail to cut costs. Priest was not in city government when SCORE was started and is careful not to criticize past decisions.

Most City Hall observers give Priest credit for making the tough budget decisions.

Priest also says the asphalt overlay program has helped maintain streets and that the graffiti removal team has been made permanent. Both help with the appearance of the city. He also points to city-supported state legislation on the sale of secondhand metals, which he says is helping police fight home burglaries.

Economic development was a major issue during the last election and likely will be in this one. Attracting new businesses continues to be Priest’s preferred method, rather than considering additional tax options, for increasing city revenue to support services.

The city has had some success. Several new businesses such as Buffalo Wild Wings and DaVita have located here, but Federal Way also lost Orion to Auburn recently. Some criticism of the city’s efforts is evident, and Priest says he has not met his campaign goal of measuring and reducing the turnaround time on permit approvals.

But, looking at the bigger picture, he believes that his efforts to improve the system, combined with a focus on commercial properties and making the city more business friendly, have been successful in attracting new businesses.

He also says he has worked with regional groups, and that the city continues to work with the Chamber of Commerce to financially support the MedTech and Velocity incubators to help start up businesses.

Much of the public’s attention, and some of its frustration over the past decade, has focused on the revitalization of downtown to help define the city’s image. Priest remains optimistic that projects will come to fruition. An update will be provided to the council and community in February.

Some critics say they don’t see much difference from when the council-manager form of government was in place, and suggest that Priest has not fully embraced his authority as mayor as they would have hoped. They say it feels like status quo at City Hall. As examples, they point out that department managers are still pretty much the same, resulting in the same line of thinking, and that Priest won’t take public positions on controversial or major topics such as the recent ballot initiatives or South King Fire and Rescue’s levy, unless he is formally asked and the council agrees.

Priest acknowledges he has been conservative about speaking out on some issues, but notes he made an exception to endorse the school district’s request for Federal Way High School. He says that even though the form of government changed, it did not alter his view about working collaboratively with the council. He seems more comfortable with the style he implemented when he was mayor in the council-manager form in the 1990s.

Last election, Priest had some political latitude because he wasn’t part of local government and all three primary opponents were council members. But this time, Priest has a record that is open to discussion, debate and, as happens in elections, interpretation.

In a city of 90,000 residents, there are different views of Federal Way’s priorities and direction. The mayoral race could provide a good opportunity to engage in a public dialogue on several topics. Red light cameras, gun control, the Community Center, the arts, parks, consolidation of government, traffic congestion, neighborhood emphasis, taxation level versus service level, and economic development are just a few.

Priest is likely to run for re-election, and Ferrell seems to be testing the water for a possible rematch. Others may be interested as well. And the race could be significantly different than two years ago.

With the economy it has been a difficult time for city government.

How do you feel about the direction of the city? What are you looking for from your mayor during the next four years? Time to start thinking about it.

 

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