Federal Way PACC is political hot potato | Inside Politics

Bob Roegner - Contributed
Bob Roegner
— image credit: Contributed

Whether you are for it or against it, the hottest political issue of 2014 is likely to be the Performing Arts and Conference Center (PACC). With few fence-sitters left in this discussion, and feelings running hot on both sides, political futures could rise or fall on how this issue is handled.

Do we need a PACC or not? Is it our highest priority?

Is it the panacea for economic development we need to jump-start the resurgence of our downtown, while also providing a new forum for local, regional and national artists and performers? Or is it a rich person’s play thing, with a cost that could be more than the public is being told, and will deprive us of police protection and reduce our support for social programs to help those in need?

The debate, while healthy and needed, has divided the community in a harsh and yet unclear manner. The depth of feelings became most evident during the race for mayor last year between supporter and incumbent Skip Priest, and opponent and now new Mayor Jim Ferrell.

Ferrell has raised questions about the project for several years, although he was in the minority on the council. But Ferrell was elected mayor, in part, because of his opposition to the PACC and now has to work with a City Council that is 4-2 in favor of it.

Councilmember Kelly Maloney was re-elected while expressing strong reservations about the PACC. However, both Deputy Mayor Jeanne Burbidge and new Councilmember Martin Moore also won and were clear in their support of the PACC.  Politically, voters have sent a mixed message.

The “pro” group is led by Joanne Piquette, whose dogged determination has to be admired even by those who disagree with her. She has developed a strong supporting cast of well-known residents.

She and her backers have been pushing the concept for several years and have had political support from the city, as Priest embraced the project and committed significant staff resources to it. But will that now change?

In a strong mayor form of government, Ferrell can decide where to commit staff time,  and he also decides what the administration’s policy positions will be. The Council can speak for the Council, but only Ferrell speaks for the administration. City policy staff is expected to be in line with their new boss, just as they were with their old boss.

And the difference between Priest and Ferrell as mayor has a very awkward situation brewing.  Patrick Doherty has held two demanding jobs as planning director and economic development director, concurrently for three years. But for the last year, he has also been the key staff person leading the PACC.

Doherty has been a very effective spokesperson for the PACC and to some, its public face. Others have been critical and want him working on recruiting businesses to the city, not spending time on the PACC.

But he was representing the direction given by his then-boss former mayor Skip Priest. Now his boss has changed and some insiders feel it may be almost impossible for him to represent Ferrell’s view with any credibility. Credible or not, if Ferrell re-assigns Doherty, as most insiders think he almost has to, the pro-PACC Council members may not react very well.

The Council majority is wedded to the project and says the city has provided “objective” information in its effort to drum up public support. But the Council was so fearful of a possible Ferrell veto that it advanced a key Council vote from its January of 2014 schedule, when Ferrell would be in office, to December of 2013, so that it would occur while Priest was still mayor.

While at its heart the issue may be more about priorities and direction, it is also about money and many in the community remain skeptical of city financial data. Several well-known leaders, such as Jeff Stock and Matthew Jarvis, have raised questions about the financing. Stock even commissioned his own review of the city pro-forma, which was critical of the city.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a partisan issue. But to some it can be characterized that way. Priest is a Republican and Ferrell is a Democrat. Many Democrats would like to see the money spent on other needs. And that pressure puts Council members, such as Moore, a Democrat and PACC supporter, in a very difficult position.

Republican Councilmember Bob Celski is also a supporter and likely has more constituents on the pro side, so his experience may be different. Burbidge is set for another four years and Councilmember Dini Duclos, another supporter, has said she won’t seek re-election in two years. Councilmember Susan Honda has also raised questions about the cost of the project and she is up for re-election in two years.

Beneath the surface, many political careers may hang in the balance or at least be affected by their positions on the PACC - certainly the mayor and Council, and possibly candidates for the state Legislature this year.

Incumbent house members Roger Freeman (D) and Linda Kochmar (R) are both former Council members. And Sen. Tracey Eide, at the city’s request, has brought home the dollars to keep the project going.

And though possibly unlikely, what if Priest gets into the legislative race? And lastly, the debate has so polarized the community, some Council watchers fear the Council majority may decide Ferrell’s replacement on the Council, with one off-the-record question: how will they vote on the PACC?

But Ferrell recognizes that while he may be opposed to the PACC, he also has a new responsibility to go along with his new title. He now represents all the people. He has to approach the issue with caution. His gambit to have a second look at the pro-forma and a short-term mayor’s committee may help bring clarity to the debate and move the discussion to a less political environment. More importantly, it stretches out the discussion to help cool some tempers.

The lack of appreciation of the many different viewpoints, in a city that prides itself on it’s embrace of diversity, has been striking in its tone and tenor.

What will our leaders decide? If the pro-PACC Council majority gain a fifth, veto-proof vote in filling Ferrell’s Council seat, will they move quickly to pass the issue as some suspect? Or will they seek to build community support and try and find some agreement with Ferrell? And at this point, is there even any common ground available or is consensus possible?

And what will the public’s role be? Will there be a citizens movement to demand a public vote on the project, even if the vote were only advisory? Most think a public vote would fail, given the voters seem to limit their voted dollars to education and public safety, but we don’t really know.

But what is needed is a forum that gives undecided voters an opportunity to hear, and compare, both sides in one setting. The Mirror is considering sponsoring such a forum after the reports are complete on the pro-forma review and the mayor’s panel. Those may provide new information. Political leaders would sit on the sidelines and listen to the information, then listen to their citizens.

And the most important listeners would be you, the citizens of our community, who simply want to hear both sides and make an informed judgment.

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


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