Mayor racks up mixed record | Roegner

Mayor Skip Priest (left) speaks during a debate with Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell on Oct. 9 at Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club. - Mirror file photo
Mayor Skip Priest (left) speaks during a debate with Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell on Oct. 9 at Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club.
— image credit: Mirror file photo

Mayor Skip Priest is a proud man who has devoted much of his adult life to serving the community and wears his affection for Federal Way like a badge of honor.

Priest has been involved in many organizations and community projects, but he is particularly attached to the Hylebos Wetlands. His community involvement led to his election to the Federal Way City Council, mayor in the council-manager form of government, state representative, and now a part of the history in a way no one else can duplicate: the city’s first full-time directly elected mayor.

A second term would be both a reward and proof of the community’s appreciation of his service. But his route to a second term has taken a different road than one would have expected just a few months ago.

Back then, it was thought Priest might run unopposed. Now he is in a close rematch with Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell.

Priest assumed office during the worst economic downturn since the early 1980s, and his term has been marked by budget cuts, not new programs.

Priest’s most visible side is unassuming and humble — an “aw shucks” image of Jimmy Stewart who just wants to help make the city where we live a little better, and doesn’t care who gets the credit. He is affable and has a good sense of humor. That is what most people see, and it is an accurate description. But there is more to the story in this unpredictable year.

First it was the Pinewood Apartment murders that brought community attention to mental health, domestic violence and gun control. It also brought Jim Ferrell into the race.

Then came a complaint filed by Councilmember Kelly Maloney about the mayor’s temper and behavior. The mayor calls it his “direct mode.” His other side was not a well-kept secret, but it took a formal complaint for the issue to become part of the public discussion. That was followed by a police report regarding the Mayor Priest’s late-night trip to retrieve his campaign signs — and a request from the police chief to have the Washington State Patrol investigate the case to ensure the public of objectivity.

But there are positive sides to Priest’s record.

At a time when other cities have had significant financial problems, Federal Way tightened its belt and came through the challenges pretty well. But the cuts Priest had to make to provide a sustainable budget also contributed to some of his political problems.

He saved money by working with city employees to reduce the costs of benefits. But he ran into problems with the Federal Way Police Officers Guild.

In the past, Priest didn’t apply for a COPS grant to add police officers because he was concerned about the city’s ability to pay for the officers when the grant expired. Again, he put budget sustainability above police. This harmed his relationship with the police, who are backing Ferrell. However, the friction doesn’t appear to have hampered police operations.

The city is pursuing a COPS grant this year, but that was pushed by his opponent, and Priest agreed as part of the budget deliberations. Priest has also funded other support programs to give balance to crime fighting.

Mayors frequently are judged by how they respond to circumstances they had no control over. Such is the case of the Pinewood murders. It was the biggest set of homicides in the city’s history. Priest gets good marks for comforting families, and he says he was on location in the middle of the night. But others say they haven’t seen any followup or policy changes because of the incident. There has been no elevation of support for domestic violence or gun control discussion.

A notable improvement is the expansion of the Safe City program into the neighborhoods, causing residential crime to drop. However, commercial crime has increased. Objectively? It’s a mixed record — certainly positive enough for Priest to claim some credit for improvement, but also enough area of concern for his opponent to challenge.

Unwilling to consider any tax increase, Priest has worked to bring more business to town and can identify several. Unfortunately, some high-profile businesses have also left town, again leaving a mixed record. His economic development director is also the planning director and the point person for the Performing Arts and Conference Center (PACC). That workload has caused some criticism from council members who would like more focus. Priest says he is trying to save money.

The PACC is one of the biggest issues separating the candidates. Previously, Priest had seemed only lukewarm to the idea as he pursued other projects such as the Crystal Palace. But this year he claimed the project and made it his own. He has exerted leadership unlike any other project in his term. He views the PACC as the cornerstone of what our future downtown will look like. Support has been building, but so far it has not gained widespread acceptance because of its cost. Local business leader Jeff Stock has raised serious questions about the financing.

Priest received the endorsement of the Tacoma News Tribune and was rated “outstanding” by the Municipal League. Ferrell was endorsed by the Federal Way Mirror and received a “very good” from the Municipal League.

Overall, Priest’s record is mixed. And while the economy is partially at fault, Priest had some unforced errors that were surprising. His record is certainly good enough to ask the public for a second term. But there are also enough questions to give his opponent reason to ask the public for a change.

Almost three years ago, Priest won with a comfortable margin over Ferrell. This time, insiders believe Ferrell has gained the momentum and the race is now too close to call.

Next week: Jim Ferrell.


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


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