New Federal Way mayor off to a slow start | Inside Politics

Bob Roegner - Contributed
Bob Roegner
— image credit: Contributed

Wow, no more eggnog for me. Before Christmas, Jim Ferrell was elected mayor of Federal Way as the candidate of change. He defeated Skip Priest in a hard fought race, promising “We can do better.”

He wanted change in policy and change in direction. No more stuck in neutral. He wanted change, change, change!

But when I awoke from my after-Christmas eggnog-induced nap, Ferrell had morphed into … Skip Priest. He wanted everything the same. Same staff in the same places, doing pretty much the same thing. No major policy announcements. No new initiatives to demonstrate our new direction as a city. He simply repeated his campaign comments but with no detail.

He did make one change, sort of. The Police Guild was very unhappy with Mayor Priest and Police Chief Brian Wilson. They wanted both gone. Priest is gone but Wilson wasn’t ousted as many had wanted.

He was promoted to a new position of chief of staff, which is almost the same as city administrator. The new job will have Wilson “assisting” in running the daily city operations. And he will still be supervising Andy Hwang, who will be acting chief like he was before.

The new title avoids any council involvement but is probably unnecessary as the council is already close to Wilson. Maybe too close. That Ferrell would appoint an administrator wasn’t a surprise; he mentioned it in the campaign, but who he selected was a surprise. The guild may be happy now but that may change once they think it through.

Wilson was city manager before the conversion to strong mayor, so he knows the breadth of the city. But neither he nor Hwang have any executive experience in a strong mayor form of government, something Ferrell needs.

Ferrell also chose to keep the rest of the management team together for the sake of “continuity.” However, he did say, “at least for now.” But the lack of movement stands in stark contrast to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s high profile staff and policy changes. Suburban cities don’t usually change as much as Seattle after an election, but some change was expected. Next door in Auburn, which also has a new mayor, several changes are being discussed.

One local well-known political observer said this amounts to “moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic.” Another felt if we are going to maintain the status quo, we could have stayed with Priest.

Ferrell was the leader of the group to replace the council-manager form of government with a strong mayor form.

He ran for mayor against Priest three years ago promising change, and after the  election he was somewhat critical of Priest for keeping everything the same. Although Priest did change two positions in the mayor’s office, the same policy staff stayed in place.

Nor did Priest hire anyone who actually understood how a strong mayor form of government worked. Now some wonder if Ferrell will follow the same course.

In government, the old saying is “personnel is policy.” It means the executive is only as strong or creative as his\her staff. This staff is used to the non-political approach of a city manager form of government, which Priest maintained. When Priest was in the middle of a difficult campaign, his staff didn’t know how to legally and politically help him. Most didn’t even understand it became part of their job once he chose to retain them when he became mayor three years ago. The attempts they did make backfired.

But staff’s involvement isn’t about waving signs on street corners. It is more subtle, nuanced and sophisticated in the manner in which the administration assists in strategy, or in response to an issue raised by the opposition. The mayor shows his loyalty by appointing or retaining staff in highly paid jobs. Staff shows their loyalty by supporting his initiatives and his reelection.

There were several times during the campaign when a department head could have helped and possibly saved Priest’s job but didn’t.

Will Ferrell make the same mistake? Or is he comfortable with a defacto council-manager form of government? If so, he wasted a lot of his energy and our time changing the form of government. There is a team at City Hall, it just isn’t Ferrell’s team yet.

In fairness, it is only Ferrell’s first week on the job and he may look at things differently after he feels more comfortable. And he may have wanted to be reassuring to the council, most of whom likely didn’t vote for him. Or he may have wanted to extend an olive branch to opponents who thought he would come in and fire everyone indiscriminately.

It has been two months since the election and we are still hearing election sound bites. Where’s the urgency? He promised us a better Federal Way if only we would elect him.

The first week’s storyline should have been about new directions, instead it’s about keeping everything the same. Ferrell may yet deliver on his promise “we can do better.”

But right now it’s more of a question “can we do better?” We don’t know, but we are off to a pretty slow start.

Contact Federal Way resident and former Auburn mayor Bob Roegner at bjroegner@comcast.net.


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