Transition to strong mayor | Bob Roegner

If you have been listening to all the talk around town, you know there’s been a lot of speculation and misinformation regarding the Federal Way City Council’s planning for transition to the strong mayor form of government.

Some citizens have actually expressed shock that political considerations might be part of the positioning. While politics are never quite out in the open, you would have to be naive to think they aren’t part of the process.

Legal requirements and good public policy will provide the primary guidance. But with almost every elected official in town weighing whether to make a run for mayor, political considerations will naturally be part of the discussion. That has invited speculation of individual motivation that may or may not be accurate.

Last week, the city council unanimously selected August and November 2010 as the primary and general election dates for the office of mayor. With the benefit of a small amount of facts and a large amount of guess work, here’s what the thinking probably was.

Councilman Jim Ferrell was initially an advocate for an early spring election date. He came out of the initiative campaign and has momentum. He already has a campaign manager who could easily move to running his campaign for mayor. All his voter information is current, and mentally, he is in campaign mode. He also knew that two other potential candidates, State Representatives Skip Priest and Mark Miloscia, would be unable to raise money while the Legislature is in session, thereby hampering their ability to campaign.

Most of the council has favored the fall rather than the spring for election for several reasons. Having the election later helps level the playing field for other candidates who might be interested, while at the same time slowing Ferrell’s momentum. At least two and possibly four other council members will give some thought to making the run.

However, having the election in the spring was not only almost impossible given the legal requirements, but would have been more expensive to taxpayers. Those are also two of the reasons that Ferrell switched positions to support the later election dates, and they provided a good policy rationale for everyone else.

But council members also figured out that Priest and Miloscia are up for election to their legislative seats — and would seem unlikely to give up probable re-election for a less certain run for mayor. Some council members actually wanted to see one of the legislators get in the race, but didn’t want to vote for the more expensive spring option. So the fall dates help everyone but Priest and Miloscia.

There was also the rumor that the council might try to set the mayor’s salary very low and put a chief administrator position in the budget. This would have limited the candidate pool to those who are retired or have other sources of income. It would have also eliminated some candidates such as Ferrell. But that idea seems unlikely to gain much support.

The city salary commission will probably be tasked with that responsibility. After they look at Renton, Kent and Auburn, they will recommend a salary consistent with those other mayors. Both Renton and Kent also have well-paid chief administrative officers to assist the mayor. The Federal Way City Council can’t require the new mayor to fill such a position, but will probably include one in the 2011 budget anyway. Since none of the likely candidates have the preferred experience, this will provide a message that the winner should consider bringing in a trained professional.

The other issue to watch is whether the city council tries to limit the powers of the mayor through adoption of the transition ordinances. So far, good public policy has prevailed and political considerations while evident have been secondary — but keep watching.

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