IRG meeting a political disaster | Inside Politics

Bob Roegner. Contributed photo

Last week, citizens were invited to provide comment to Mayor Jim Ferrell and City Council members in a study session on the proposed use of the former Weyerhaeuser property for an Orca Bay Seafoods fish processing warehouse. More than 300 residents attended to share their earnest, passionate belief that this was the wrong business in the wrong place.

By almost any measure, the evening was a political disaster.

Contributing to the disaster were a series of missteps by the city: Ferrell’s suggestion that speakers reduce their time allowance so that more people could speak, which was promptly rejected by the City Council who wanted everyone to speak no matter how long it took; mishandling the opening with a legal explanation that nothing could be done and there was no real reason for the meeting; the Chief of Staff’s explanation of the city’s priorities being only jobs, not land use or community goals; the mayor and council’s continued disagreement over calling special council meetings to gather public input; and another loss of temper by Ferrell in a public meeting – this time at a citizen. Worse, several minutes later, Ferrell appeared to check a text message then come back to the same citizen, and rather than offer apologies, he took again to lecturing her. Finally, all eight elected officials have given future opponents an issue to run on.

Residents waited an hour and 10 minutes while the city attorney, the mayor’s chief of staff, Industrial Realty Group (IRG) and their vendors tried to create an environment that assured citizens there was really nothing to worry about. It’s a form of “spin control” to try and contain and re-direct citizens away from their concerns. It backfired.

Mayor Ferrell’s Chief of Staff Brian Wilson, who was the lead on the project with Ferrell, told the audience the city’s highest priority was jobs! But the point floundered because residents have a different view of the importance of the property, and the city and IRG have never quantified what those jobs are despite the issue being raised several times.

How much would the jobs pay, and how many are unfilled new jobs as opposed to job transfers for incumbents? Tom Messmer of IRG brought gifts in the form of steps IRG could take to satisfy the residents’ concerns – he’s obviously handled difficult crowds before and is smooth, but his attempts were too little, too late and were perceived as superficial.

Messmer’s construction team made matters worse when they explained they understood residents’ concerns since the team was really part of the community as well, seeing as they’d built projects in Lynden and Tri-Cities. The Federal Way residents didn’t seem to agree that Lynden and Tri-Cities were part of the Federal Way community.

When citizens finally got their chance to speak, they were tired of waiting but were able to articulate clearly and succinctly their opposition to the project. They are not opposed to jobs, progress, or new ideas; they are opposed to under-utilizing the best, most appreciated and most admired piece of property in Federal Way in the manner proposed. They are concerned about Federal Way’s future and how we attract real economic development with family-wage jobs that gives us a brighter future.

With our regional image already tarnished, IRG’s proposal would make it worse, not better. They wanted a moratorium on the project and wanted it re-worked to something that would engender civic pride.

It was during citizen testimony that Ferrell lost his temper. Ferrell thought Elizabeth Kari’s comments were accusing him of dishonesty. Kari testified she had noticed Messmer said something in a June 22 meeting that Ferrell attended, which was covered by the Mirror, that didn’t seem to match with the timing of IRG’s paperwork being submitted to City Hall. Kari wanted to know what the mayor knew and when he knew it. She was actually raising a question about Messmer’s credibility, and if Messmer was misleading the public, she wanted to know why Ferrell didn’t say so.

I asked Ferrell about the exchange in an email the day after the meeting. Ferrell said, “The question last night implied that we had not acted truthfully because we did not announce what was known about possible plans or avenues that IRG was pursuing. That is not our job.”

Ferrell is correct that the city should not be announcing such items. However, once the question was asked, as Kari asked, then the question is on fair ground and deserves an answer, not a lecture.

A letter to her identifying the time frames for each IRG contact and submittal would answer the question. Or the mayor can wait and answer the question through each party’s attorney, since the question will get asked again.

The question and the answer are important. If IRG did not mislead the city or the public, the public should know that. And it might make their proposed concessions more believable. If they did mislead someone, then the public has the right to know that as well.

During discussion by the council members, attendees learned even more upsetting news. City councils have many functions on policy matters, including hearing and deciding legislative policy matters. But they are also final arbitrators in quasi-judicial matters. Most city councils don’t like quasi-judicial cases because they act as judge and jury and are not allowed to talk about the matter while it’s under deliberation. All information must be learned in the council chambers as part of the process – in legalese, no ex-parte contact is allowed. They cannot talk with anyone associated with the issue, nor can they talk with a neighbor or friends. It’s like a courtroom.

The Federal Way City Council could have heard this issue, but in 2009 they abdicated that responsibility and delegated it to the city hearings examiner. That took the Council out of the process they now say they care about. In an almost comical moment, one council member said the Council delegated the responsibility for quasi-judicial so they could talk about issues of concern freely with the public. Now they’ve called a meeting where 300 people show up to tell the Council what they think, and the city attorney cautions them against saying anything anyway while simultaneously reminding them they have no power in the matter!

The attorney was likely concerned about any statement uttered by a council member showing up in a legal brief. Ferrell has already changed his comments in the last two weeks, likely for both legal and political reasons.

Two council members, Kelly Maloney and Susan Honda, explained that they didn’t know anything about the IRG proposal. Honda said she tried to get information from city staff and was unsuccessful, and Maloney said she didn’t know anything until she read it in the paper. Insiders said that some council members knew more than others.

But it’s clear that most, if not all, council members want to disavow any involvement in supporting the fish warehouse concept. Some blame Ferrell and his staff for not telling them what was going on – although one does wonder why more questions weren’t asked by the Council over the last 18 months. And Maloney is the council’s lead on economic development. All eight elected officials seem to be genuinely surprised at the level of disagreement the issue has raised, and Ferrell seems to be the most surprised. He ran on a platform of economic development and, after the Performing Arts and Event Center, it seems to be his primary interest. He hired Tim Johnson to spearhead the city’s efforts. But according to insiders, Johnson wasn’t involved in this initiative. Only Ferrell, a former prosecutor, Wilson, a former police chief, and Scott Sproul, the acting planning director (whose experience is as a building official, not as a planner) were the key players. And the person hired specifically to do economic development wasn’t involved?

So what happens now? Since more projects will be coming, the City Council should reconsider its delegation of authority and reclaim responsibility for quasi-judicial matters. It is always uncomfortable to have the final responsibility on controversial projects, but that’s what councils are for and should be among the reasons these people ran for public office.

Wouldn’t it be better policy for the Council to have to explain why they voted a certain way rather than tell constituents they are powerless to do anything, let alone provide a needed check and balance on the mayor?

Sproul will likely allow the project, and his decision will be appealed to the city hearing examiner. There are serious questions about whether this project fits the original agreement the city made with Weyerhaeuser and about whether the city, in its zeal to land new business before next year’s election cycle, didn’t give away too much.

Richard Aramburu, a well-known environmental attorney, testified at the council meeting representing the North Lake Improvement Council. He reminded the Council that they can’t bargain away their police power. He has a good argument to pursue. Had the city met with Weyerhaeuser two years ago and included language about a Master Site Plan and the city’s long-term goals for the property prior to any sale, all of this may have been avoided. It’s not too late for the Council to still consider that approach.

The other possibility is that Orca Bay decides the battle isn’t worth the gain and looks elsewhere. Particularly since they’re on a timeline and there’s limited staff in City Hall to review and process the paperwork unless IRG or Orca Bay put up money for the city to hire more staff or bring in consultants.

The politics of this mess are likely to get worse without stable leadership. The issues for potential candidates continue to mount, and another neighborhood is angry at the mayor and Council.

In the long run, this may be positive as it may force a long-overdue conversation between the citizens and their government about the most important question affecting our community: What do we want Federal Way’s future to look like?

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is the former mayor of Auburn. He can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.