Deputy mayor vote highlights potential problems

Wow, what a council meeting! If one thing is clear after the first council meeting of the new year, it is that bitter feelings from the election have not been stored very far from the surface, and our eight elected city officials may face a more significant challenge of working together than expected.

Mayor Jim Ferrell was re-elected after a convincing win over council member Susan Honda this past November. Honda has been competing with Councilman Mark Koppang to be elected deputy mayor. The race for mayor was conducted in public, and both candidates were careful to not make the race personal, at least in public. However, behind the scenes, insiders say animosity was evident and has continued.

The race for deputy mayor has been behind the scenes as only the seven council members get to vote. Four votes win. Ferrell does not have a vote, but his interest in denying Honda the job has been well known, even though the position is largely ceremonial.

Koppang has been a Ferrell ally, although insiders say he harbors future mayoral ambitions of his own. As the date of the council meeting drew closer, Koppang counted Councilman Martin Moore as a solid supporter. His camp also felt he would get support from newcomer Hoang Tran, and that Dini Duclos might lean his way. Honda’s camp thought newcomer Jesse Johnson and Lydia Assefa-Dawson were supporters and that Tran and Duclos were leaning their way.

Getting four votes is very hard, but keeping four votes can sometimes be harder as the pressure builds.

Some council members were being cagey about whom they were inclined to support and may have wanted a committee assignment, some other consideration, or may have just wanted to wait before giving that final affirmation. Outside and inside power players with a stake in the outcome were trying indirectly to put pressure on council members to vote a certain way. Most council watchers thought it would be a 4-3 vote but were not sure who would have the four.

Then, as the last hours to the council meeting — and vote — ticked down, Honda’s votes seemed to crystallize as herself, Johnson, Assefa-Dawson, Tran and maybe Duclos. But the Koppang group still wanted to deny Honda the victory, even though they knew Koppang couldn’t win. They hatched a last-minute plan to try and pull off the victory.

As expected, Honda was nominated, and it was by Duclos, which became more important when a moment later Moore nominated Assefa-Dawson to be deputy mayor. It was a clever maneuver to try and entice Assefa-Dawson into the non-Honda category, and it was hoped that if she moved, possibly another council member would also change sides, giving the Koppang group the four votes to stop Honda. No one is taking credit for the substitution, and some believe the plot may have come from outside the council.

The tactic was done at the last minute as a surprise, which worked. No one saw it coming, but it also didn’t allow any time for actually communicating the reason for the substitution. The importance of the Duclos vote became apparent. Honda did lose Assefa-Dawson’s vote, but with Duclos, it meant that Honda actually may have had five votes, one vote to spare. Honda was elected deputy mayor, 4-3, with support from Duclos, Tran and Johnson in addition to her own vote.

At the end of the tiring evening, council members took turns trying to put a good face on a very uncomfortable situation, including Koppang, who handled it well, although he had to have been disappointed. But Moore, in a shocking monologue, expressed “a lot of concerns” about Honda, potentially undermining efforts at teamwork. While other council members may have felt the same, they were hoping to keep the bitterness from public view. Some in attendance questioned why Ferrell didn’t gavel Moore back to order.

But Moore’s comments were a harbinger of things to come. By the next day, some insiders were trying to find a way to overturn Honda’s win through a second vote.

Their first gambit was asserting that one of the council members who voted for Honda may have been confused by the substitution of Assefa-Dawson for Koppang and voted incorrectly, although that does not appear to be the case.

The next idea was to try and undermine Duclos’ support of Honda with a public disclosure request to obtain city records that might show Honda and former council member Kelly Maloney in an unfavorable light regarding some heath challenges Duclos faced a few years ago. So far, nothing there either. Other rumors swirled as those unhappy with Honda’s win sought ways to provide grounds for a re-vote, including a parliamentary move for reconsideration by a member of the prevailing party, but that is unlikely to occur and shouldn’t have standing.

All attempts at a re-vote appear to be long shots. The election to the position of deputy mayor is covered by the Revised Code of Washington, and the winner is elected for a specific two-year term.

It does not appear to allow for a re-vote just because someone changes their mind or an awkward circumstance comes to light. If the person is still eligible to hold public office, then there would not appear to be existing legal reason to reconsider the election as deputy mayor. Should any attempt to undermine Honda’s election come into play, the city attorney and Honda would both likely seek the advice of the Municipal Research Council.

The aftermath of the vote was disappointing and not the finest hour for some of our elected officials, nor does it bode well for future cooperation as the lines remain drawn between Honda, Ferrell and their supporters.

But there were bright spots. Newcomers Tran and Johnson didn’t allow themselves to be drawn into the petty politics of the moment, and looked independent and more concerned about public policy. Duclos showed needed maturity as she bridged the gap from the mayoral election to this one objectively, and, following Moore’s comments, she provided a needed positive close.

But if this is an example of one week in the new alignment of city government, the other 51 may be a wild ride!

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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