Federal Way's 'ready, fire, aim' economic discussion | Inside Politics

Bob Roegner - Contributed
Bob Roegner
— image credit: Contributed

Mayor Jim Ferrell and the City Council recently announced they would put together a task force of community members to come up with recommendations for an economic development summit this fall.

Sounds simple enough, but it’s not. Some questions have arisen on how this will actually work, and whether now is the right time for such an event.

Typically, the Economic Development director for city government, as the credentialed professional, would lead the staff effort in support of such a meeting. This person would coordinate policy questions, advise the mayor and Council on laws and regulations, ensure significant policy questions are raised, highlight national best practices, provide insight on current and planned projects, write the final report and be responsible for implementation.

One little problem ... the city doesn’t have an Economic Development director, he was let go and now works for the city of Edmonds. His replacement is still in Sacramento and even when he arrives, it will still be many months until he knows enough about state and local laws and city history to be of much help on a project of this depth.

Another complicating factor is city leaders have taken several policy positions regarding downtown that need to be coordinated and will likely need additional discussion or simply more data before decisions should be made. As an example, the recent moratorium in the city core appears to be in reaction to possible development at the former Top Foods site, rather than a thoughtful deliberation about what the vision for downtown should be. The area should be considered as a whole not in individual pieces.

At the same time, some residents, and possibly some Council members, want to use the economic discussion as a means to change land use regulations for potential developments they don’t like.

While land use might come up as a broad category, using the summit to discuss specific projects is questionable and could place the Council in an awkward position if they appear to be prejudging a land use issue before all the facts are known.

Even discussing land use criteria will require significant staff support from the city Community Services director and the professional planning staff. But there again we don’t have a permanent Community Services director right now.

That job was also held by the guy who went to Edmonds. We have an acting appointment, but any discussion of this magnitude needs to be staffed by a permanent director who will be here for the long run. Regardless, discussions on specific land use proposals are best left to the proper channel.

Additionally, city leaders have already taken a position in favor of the Interstate 5 option for Sound Transit over the Highway 99 option, even though the final data won’t be available until this winter and Sound Transit won’t select a preferred alternative until next spring. In other words, a decision to support a specific transit option has been made even though not all the facts are even known yet.

Other ideas being discussed are a college in the downtown core and rebranding the city image. However, the Council seems to have moved beyond their legislative function and into the role usually occupied by professional staff, something they should try and avoid. Clouding the lines of responsibility doesn’t help the professionals do their job and is less likely to produce a quality product.

However, that lack of clarity may have its genesis in politics as observers have noticed a not-so-subtle “push back” by the Council on the roles that the mayor and Council will play in the summit. Behind the scenes and now a little more publicly, the Council has said it wants a larger role in the task force and as a logical extension, the summit. One Council member even referred to it as the Council-mayor summit, rather than the mayor-Council summit.

By agreeing to the expanded role for the Council, Ferrell may have been trying to appease some members of the Council and community who feel Ferrell didn’t share the credit for passing the Performing Arts and Conference Center. But by ceding some of his responsibility to the Council, he may be eroding the gains he made in emerging as a strong mayor. Unsurprisingly, the Council has never been comfortable with the change in the form of government.

In fact, Ferrell doesn’t need to include the Council in the summit at all. In a strong mayor form of government the mayor would describe his vision of Federal Way’s economic future and his professional staff would put that vision into an Economic Development policy document and it would become the mayor’s recommendation to the Council.

The Council would debate, amend and ultimately approve the plan. A community summit could be one of the pieces of the mayor’s plan. But it shouldn’t result in a plan by itself. It may have escaped notice but whatever does come out of the effort, no matter what discussions yield, is not binding on anyone, including the mayor.

Although still in the discussion phase, the mayor and Council appear to be trying to incorporate separate community interests that have their own mission, role and equally necessary goals when collaboration is more desirable.

The key to economic development isn’t external, it’s internal. It isn’t talking, or meeting or summits. It’s data, strategy and knowing what the roles in the community are and how to best let each do their job in support of each other.

The city might be better served by filling its key professional jobs, reviewing its data on existing businesses and having a clear appreciation of all the community’s assets and the role they play.

With our geographic advantage the rest of the region is watching us, and to be taken seriously we need to look organized. Right now the fluid nature of the discussion looks like “ready, fire, aim,” and that’s not what anybody wants. Our economic future is too important for that.

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


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