Opinion

City still waits for 'strong mayor' form of government | Roegner

Three years ago, the citizens of Federal Way voted to replace the council-manager form of government — where a professionally trained city manager is the chief administrative officer — with a mayor-council form of government, where the mayor is separately elected and replaces the city manager as the top city executive.

Two years ago, State Rep. Skip Priest was elected the city’s first full-time mayor. Since then, some citizens have asked, “what changed?” Now they know the answer. Very little.

The city’s veteran elected officials continue to be reluctant to fully implement the new strong mayor system, and it may have actually gotten worse as the city manager system has become even more entrenched but with a new title (mayor), and we vote for the position.

The veteran council members apparently don’t want to change, as it would reduce their power. We do have four new council members, but when they were elected, they assumed all the changes were done and apparently didn’t ask any questions. Given their brief tenure, they may not even know what questions to ask.

And the new mayor, who had also served as a ceremonial mayor in the old system several years ago, stayed with his comfort level and has been unwilling to challenge the council or even make some changes under his control.

During the change in government systems, the council adopted the basic structure that was legally required. But they also tried to tie the mayor’s hands by providing contracts to the department heads so that the mayor couldn’t fire them. The move, of questionable legality, was aimed at Jim Ferrell at the time. But when Mayor Priest chose not to oppose the contracts, he unwittingly assisted the council in undermining his own authority. The contracts have expired, but it set an unwilling political tone.

The council members also caused some mischief by inserting themselves into the administration of the city, which is the mayor’s turf. They gave themselves confirmation authority over a non-policy position that helps the council with some administrative matters, while also participating in the position’s hiring and evaluation. Confirmation is intended for policy-level positions such as department directors. Only the mayor is supposed to be hiring, firing and evaluating.

The council’s mischief is found in using their legislative authority to get around state law, which places the mayor in charge of all city employees. Even though the mayor has been unwilling to challenge them, the council should change this on its own.

The mayor is responsible for all the employees in the administration and supervises the department heads, whom he can hire and fire, along with others not covered by a collective bargaining agreement — same as the city manager.

However, Mayor Priest has not made many changes, and only one department head has left. So the department heads are the same. Although Priest does supervise the department heads, he has not chosen to give them written goals or do written evaluations on them. He does meet with them regularly to discuss department topics. Most city managers have written goals and perform written evaluations on their staff. The new approach is different, but not necessarily better. In today’s world of accountability, highly paid department directors should have written goals and evaluations.

Many who supported the conversion did so because a strong mayor is the leader of the city and is a policy partner with the council. As mayor, Priest can support or oppose any public policy issue he wants, but he has appeared reluctant to use the opportunities available to him or identify a signature program of his own, and appears more comfortable fitting into the manager role he remembers from his days on the city council.

It was only recently that he picked up the leadership of the Performing Arts and Conference Center (PACC). Priest remains cautious about endorsements of public ballot issues — he supported the school district, but remained silent on the fire district and other regional and state public ballot issues.

After the Pinewood Apartment murders in April, no one spoke out about domestic violence, easy access to weapons or mental heath. Neither the mayor nor council made any effort to change the city legislative agenda to show leadership on these topics in the aftermath of the worst shooting in the city’s history.

In a strong mayor system, it would be expected that the mayor would use the “bully pulpit” that his office provides to propose legislative remedies to the many questions that surfaced in the aftermath. Also, if the council were more familiar with its own new role, the members would have tried to get out in front of the mayor with their own ideas. But no one did anything. City staff says no administrative changes were made because of the shootings, and nothing was added to the city legislative agenda.

The mayor acknowledges his approach is a carryover from the city manager style he remembers, where the mayor and council agreed on policy positions. That approach reduces the chances of disagreement, but also decreases the leadership component typically identified with a strong mayor. Politically speaking, it also takes the mayor off the hook.

Priest speaks in very strong terms about getting along with the council, and seems to work at it. He still lets council members sign proclamations, which is a mayoral prerogative not traditionally shared.

But the mayor and council haven’t been charged with getting along with each other. They have been charged with implementing a new form of government for the community’s future. It is something they are not only reluctant to do, but seem to go out of their way to keep the old system in place with only a new name.

Both candidates for mayor in this year’s election have been culpable in not fully implementing the public direction. One insider said “the public doesn’t care about this inside government stuff as long as they get services It doesn’t matter.”

However, it does matter. It’s the mayor and council’s job to care. That’s what the public elected them to do. Then the public directed them to implement a new form of government, not just the parts they liked, and not to find ways around the parts they didn’t like.

In some cities, it takes several years, or even several mayors, before the change is fully incorporated. So we may just have to wait until they figure it out or someone starts showing some leadership.


 

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