The city of Federal Way is almost 30 years old. We are far beyond putting council resolutions on napkins at local restaurants. We should be embracing the talents and needs of the entire community in governance rather than maintaining an insiders-club mentality. The “Federal Way 400” that provided much of the leadership in our formative years has mostly retired and provides us a good opportunity to reach beyond the regular boundaries and seek inclusion and new ideas. The public voted to change the form of government, an act frequently and conveniently overlooked.
That is not to say that there aren’t good people and good things going on at City Hall. There are many.
But among some of the elected officials, there is still an insiders-club preference that has not sought the level of sophistication a city this size should expect from its government. Implementation of the strong-mayor form of government lags as insiders more comfortable with the former council-manager style operate with a “we-know-best” mentality. As you consider candidates for mayor and council this year, here are some lower profile issues to consider. Policy making and city rules should be made in the abstract and viewed the way an independent third party might react, not based on who the mayor and council are at any one time, or who they know.
Three times this past year, the City Council called public meetings to get residents’ comments on topics the council had no control over. Most notably was the Weyerhaeuser flap. The council has never really understood its check-and-balance responsibility in policy making under the new form of government. It could have influenced this major policy issue, but had earlier abdicated its quasi-judicial role. After several months of controversy, council members have still not restored that authority, and their ability to represent their constituents continues to be limited. Calling meetings that embarrassed the mayor gave the appearance of legislative concern and was good political theater, but it was poor and misleading government. This is mostly the same group that ignored the voters’ wishes on marijuana and held a second election when the likely turnout would be more favorable to those who opposed it. It was. But, being inconsistent, they wouldn’t put the Performing Arts and Events Center on the ballot.
The chief of staff was called to account for a relationship with a special-interest advocate that was more cozy than it should have been. Based on the narrow allegation, the investigation rightly determined no fault. But the process did shine a light on how some of our elected and appointed officials conduct themselves.
Current rules say city officials can receive gifts of less than a $50 value. That can still buy a lot of free meals and drinks, particularly if elected officials make it a regular habit. Some officials have been guests at events and sat at tables paid for by people who do business with the city where the value of the seat at the table exceeded the allowable amount. Those rules need to change so no one receives anything of any value. Or a requirement should be added that all employees have to disclose in writing all meals, tickets, drinks and anything of any value they receive from anyone who isn’t a relative. A record system would disclose who is trying to influence city leaders. If a person pays for a table at an event where each seat costs $150 and has an elected or appointed official as a guest, that person just got two hours of good will and access that a resident who can’t afford such events wouldn’t get. That’s wrong. At a minimum, records need to be kept and available for review by residents.
Officials say a free lunch or seat at an event won’t influence them. That is insider talk for “we’re above the average person. You can trust us.” Records would help verify that, or they might tell us a different story.
Also, one of the council committees frequently has a majority of five or more council members in attendance. It is published properly, and only the three committee members actually vote. But it gives the appearance of a full council decision, as all attendees participate. Any resident who attends a regular council meeting and offers comment is likely unaware that most council members may have already informally made up their minds without considering that resident’s view. Council rules need to change so that only three members attend committee meetings to avoid even the appearance of predisposition. The council should also consider having more formal committees and an equitable distribution of workload. With a small number of committees, where not all the council members have an equal role, politics is more likely to surface. A senior member of the council was replaced by a freshman on the most powerful committee during the last reorganization.
Council members have other holdovers from the council-manager days, such as calling city staff “our staff.” All the staff work for the mayor, not the council. Rather than look for policy improvements, the council continues to be distracted by minutia. Council members still insist on having their own non-policy staff person and want to confirm a city administrator should the mayor hire one. The current mayor got around that by changing the title. But his appointee as chief of staff was still fulfilling that role and was described by most as the second-in-command. It is unlikely that candidates for mayor will have the necessary background to actually manage the daily affairs of the city. The council role should be to approve a job description for the city administrator, to ensure the mayor doesn’t hire an unqualified person, but the choice should be the mayor’s without confirmation because the position is an extension of the mayoral authority. But the council wants some control over that person, similar to the old city manager. Only department head appointments should be confirmed by the council.
Current city employees should not be appointed to city policy advisory committees. It confuses their residence with their job and unnecessarily raises questions of objectivity. It also makes them subject to inappropriate mayoral and peer pressure. There are plenty of residents willing to serve who lack conflicts.
City Council members and all citizen appointees to boards and commissions should be trained on conflicts of interest, appearance of fairness and other procedures to help them avoid problems. They should receive refresher training every two to three years.
The council retained the appointment and confirmation of residents to boards and commissions. Appointments should be the mayor’s prerogative, with council retaining confirmation. It provides a check and balance that doesn’t currently exist.
The council leader is called the deputy mayor. That is a holdover from the council-manager days and is actually a staff title, more like a city administrator. The council leader should be called president of the council and mayor pro tempore. Deputy mayor sounds more impressive and some cities find it hard to let go.
The title is just one of many things this council should discuss. It is long past time to move forward rather than look back.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at email@example.com.