Closing City Hall was a bad idea

By most accounts, Mayor Jim Ferrell’s State of the City address at the Performing Arts and Event Center went well. However, it was his order to close City Hall and require non-uniform city employees to attend the speech during work hours that has caused the most comment around town, as some taxpayers question spending tax dollars to use city employees as props to run up attendance figures.

In the weekly Mirror poll, 51 percent of respondents were opposed to Ferrell’s order; 25 percent said employee attendance should be optional; and only 24 percent favored it. The public event included singing students, a jazz band, tables for some city departments and social service agencies, and Ferrell as the main attraction. His order caused 150 to 175 city employees to be pulled away from their jobs to attend. The mayor’s communications officer would not confirm how many city employees work in City Hall on a daily basis.

The mayor’s office also said staff were expected to follow their supervisors’ “recommendation” to attend. The mayor says it’s required and closes City Hall, but supervisors say “recommend?” There was a sign-up sheet at the PAEC that included 140 names, but adding to the confusion, not all employees knew they were supposed to sign in, and some non-city employees say they signed the sheet. The communication officer says supervisors did not check to see that all their employees had attended.

Most of the city employees I know are hard-working professionals who care about public service and likely attended, though they may have preferred to be at their work station assisting the public. But I don’t know every city employee, and with the confusion, lack of supervisory oversight and the lack of clarity on the number of employees who should be in attendance, it is possible some may have ended up elsewhere. Unfortunately the city doesn’t really know how many employees were or were not in attendance.

City government has an implied contract with the residents it serves. In exchange for collecting taxes from residents, City Hall agrees to have employees available during regular business hours to provide services. That relationship is embodied in law by Federal Way ordinance No. 90-58, which says City Hall will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Those hours are also printed on the first and second floors of City Hall. The mayor’s directive ignored that ordinance. City staff did make efforts to alert residents to the closure, although some City Council members were unaware of Ferrell’s directive.

The mayor’s office says it consulted with the city attorney, but despite repeated requests, it was unwilling to provide a citation that allowed closing City Hall and ignoring the ordinance. In an attempt to downplay the issue, the city spokesman said “it was only an hour and a half.” That ignores the point, the public and the ordinance. All employees are paid by taxpayer dollars and hired to perform specific city functions. Boosting the attendance at the mayor’s speech is probably not in their job description. What if the mayor’s whim was to have city employees to attend some other event on taxpayers’ time?

Ferrell also made a point of the public nature of the event by saying it was free. That is not an accurate statement. There was no fee for attendance, as there had been when the speech was at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon. But it was not free. Event staff cost taxpayers $354 and catered food $1,156. And that doesn’t include the salaries of the city employees who were at the PAEC rather than City Hall. Again the communications officer would not provide an estimate of the tax dollars spent on staff salaries for those attending. Assuming some were actually working at the tables, 130 employees at a mid-range salary of $20 per hour for one and a half hours equals $3,900 paid to people for not working at the jobs for which they were hired. The event cost taxpayers at least $5,000, although with more transparent information, it might be higher. It was not free.

The city argues that some employees were actually talking to residents, and that counted as work. That’s a pretty thin attempt at political spin, as I doubt staff were talking during Ferrell’s speech or the music performance. The mayor’s office also says it did not receive any complaints about closing City Hall. That may be true, but residents have frequently expressed a reluctance to complain for fear of retaliation. Justified or not, in today’s political environment, fear of government can be real.

City officials became so defensive about the topic they said my questions were because the Chamber of Commerce lost money with the venue change, and I am on the chamber board. That is another attempt at political spin and is inaccurate. I am on the board, but I supported the change in venue as I rightly suspected that Ferrell would prefer to show off the new PAEC. Chamber CEO Rebecca Martin advised Ferrell weeks ago the chamber supported his moving the event to the PAEC and rescheduled the mayor to speak in September and obtained another speaker for his previously scheduled time slot. The chamber will not lose money because of the change.

But the strident over-reaction by the mayor’s office may give some credence to residents’ fear of retaliation if they question City Hall.

Ferrell justifies his decision by saying he wanted to keep city employees informed. Good idea, but the video is easily available, and he could have circulated his speech via email or made himself available during a lunch hour in council chambers to any city employees who wanted to hear his speech or ask him questions. Options other than closing City Hall were available.

I contacted two former city administrators and two former city attorneys to ask for their views. All four said they had never heard of closing City Hall for any reason other than an emergency and would have cautioned against such a decision for a speech. The state auditors office declined to specifically address the Federal Way question. But Kathleen Cooper, assistant director of communications, said “these are the types of management decisions that can be considered when deciding what areas to audit.”

There are lessons to be learned from this experience. Closing City Hall was a bad idea, and Ferrell has already said he will schedule next year’s address for the evening. He may lose some city employees, but the later hour will allow many residents who have day jobs. The bigger issue is Ferrell needs to get better advice. Most seasoned government managers would have tried to talk him out of this decision. Lastly, the City Council needs to discuss passing an ordinance that establishes tight guidelines under which the mayor has the authority to close City Hall. Because mayoral whim is not sufficient.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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