Jim Ferrell’s record as mayor has been mixed. But as the incumbent he is the front runner. He rightfully takes credit for construction of the Performing Arts and Event Center, the Town Square Park, working to save some property for public use at the Weyerhaeuser location, adding a downtown police satellite station and crime statistics that are actually better than he makes them sound.
His opponents point out that he ran for mayor four years ago opposing the PAEC as wasteful. He also supported a public vote on the PAEC, which he never introduced after he was elected mayor. The PAEC is about $8 million short of money, and his opponent, Councilwoman Susan Honda, recently suggested that he was mismanaging city funds and departments by underfunding them to help bail out the PAEC. She specifically called out the building department’s permit process as in need of additional staffing. Some members of the business community have also been critical of the length of time it takes to get a permit. Others have been critical of Ferrell for creating, but not funding, the recommendations of the Violence Prevention Committee.
Many residents believe Ferrell missed his opportunity to have an impact on the Weyerhaeuser property during the sale phase, and then his administration became too cozy with IRG, the purchasers. It wasn’t until Ferrell started to feel the political heat from the neighbors that he started looking for a way to appease them. Ferrell has never really made the transition from campaigning to governing and seems to view every situation for its political calculation.
Ferrell says he is a Democrat, but much of his fundraising is from conservative sources that mirror his mentor, King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer. Ferrell has raised more than $91,000 for this campaign and seems likely to top $100,000 for the election. Honda has raised about $16,000. That financial advantage is significant in a race in a town the size of Federal Way. But Ferrell’s policy positions are more appealing to conservatives than progressives.
In contrast, Honda leans Republican, but with her nursing background she tends to view social issues as challenges that need to have solutions, while Ferrell wants them to go away.
Even though no one in authority had proposed a safe injection site in Federal Way, both candidates opposed the policy concept. But only Honda noted that addicts seeking help can’t get it and felt the city should work with the county health department to find more beds for those in need.
Some believe that if Ferrell faced an opponent with the same amount of money and campaign experience he has, he could be very vulnerable. This is Ferrell’s third race for mayor and Honda’s first. Honda has only had one competitive council race. Ferrell lost his first mayoral race to Skip Priest and got the benefit of several Priest errors to win in the rematch. Ferrell simply has had more money, more campaign experience and the advantages of the incumbency.
Honda’s inexperience has shown as she has not known how or when to take advantage of the openings Ferrell has given her.
It was only at the recent debates hosted by the Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce and the Mirror that Honda finally started to assert herself and raise questions about Ferrell’s weaknesses. She noted that Ferrell’s homeless initiative of closing camps had just kept them moving from one neighborhood to another and has wasted of thousands and thousands of dollars, and also has been a substantive failure as the homeless will soon face another winter without an indoor place to sleep.
Honda also was critical of the number of service jobs created under Ferrell that do not pay family-level wages. Had she been making these arguments for the last six months she might not have had a 20-point deficit in the primary.
Despite his big lead, Ferrell actually prodded Honda for wanting to hire a professional city administrator so she could concentrate on policy and community matters if elected mayor. However, Honda missed an opportunity to turn that issue back on Ferrell by pointing out the high salary that he paid Brian Wilson for three years for essentially the same job. Neither Ferrell or Honda is an experienced government manager. Both need professional help to be mayor.
Many of Ferrell’s advisers believe he should have hired a trained city administrator rather than Wilson, the former police chief. They note he repeated the mistake by hiring an old friend, a former prosecutor with no city management experience as an adviser.
A trained professional might have helped limit Ferrell’s tendency to act on impulse and established a more stable decision-making environment.
Ferrell has never demonstrated a consistent policy direction or management style that creates a bond with the professional staff who are there to help him. Even one of Ferrell’s supporters is concerned about the trust factor with Ferrell.
While Honda has frequently raised questions about City Hall initiatives, she has never been able to marshal the support from other council members to change the direction.
Both candidates want an emphasis on economic development and have pledged to expand their cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce into the tourist area, which is a traditional chamber focus. And both candidates want to ensure that as Sound Transit builds the train system through Federal Way, any concerns are addressed.
Neither candidate has articulated a true futuristic vision for the community, and despite Ferrell’s vulnerabilities, time is growing short for Honda to make her case as an alternative.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former Auburn mayor and retired public official. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.