By Bob Roegner, Inside Politics
The Federal Way Municipal Court is at a critical juncture in its growth.
Will the future bring the respect and admiration it deserves, or continue to be tainted with controversy and questions?
Several weeks ago, school board president and local attorney David Larson was tapped by City Manager Neal Beets to replace former judge Colleen Hartl, who resigned in December. Larson’s appointment was confirmed by the Federal Way City Council.
Most in the community greeted Larson’s appointment positively as he is considered bright, is involved in the community and has demonstrated a commitment to public service. Others, while not opposing Larson, questioned why city leaders felt the need to rush the appointment and bypass a public process. Some council members also were concerned about this, but chose to proceed.
With the court’s recent controversies, some felt this particular appointment was far more meaningful than normal. Many noting Presiding Judge Michael Morgan’s lack of judicial experience prior to his election felt the selection seemed to call for a candidate with considerable judicial experience, where Larson had none.
However, with the benefit of hindsight and sources close to the process, we now have a better understanding of Larson’s selection. City leaders apparently did contact some of the individuals who were candidates when Hartl was selected last year. Also, other local attorneys were contacted to assess their interest. At least one candidate emerged as a serious alternative to Larson, but was unprepared to leave his law practice at this time.
As the deliberations on the appointment unfolded, judicial experience became less important than personal attributes such as character, ethical behavior, employee relations skills, convictional courage and the ability to work with others to bring “stability” to a court that has suffered under significant stress.
City insiders believed Larson possessed these qualities.
The need for stability became a pivotal phrase and was often used by key players as justification to support the expedited appointment. The implication seemed to be that decision makers felt having one judge, Morgan, assisted by pro-tem judges for a few months did not provide the stability that was desired.
Even though Judge Morgan is likely to remain as presiding judge, the message from city leaders seems clear. They want a balance of power between the two judges with more of a cooperative leadership relationship rather than one directing and the other following. They do not want a repeat of the issues that may have affected the relationship between Morgan and Hartl.
It also seems clear city leaders, while respectful of the separation between branches of government, want cooperation between the court and the rest of City Hall. And we now know that internal discussions went even deeper.
There is speculation that the stress and strain on Morgan may reach such a level that he would consider resigning. While the reasons are unclear, ultimately Morgan has chosen to stay in office.
Most court observers hope that Larson’s appointment will allow a fresh start and give the court time to settle down. Larson said as much after his appointment. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
There are two investigations, the public release of which is being disputed by Morgan and the city, along with other investigations being conducted by the Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC). The public is likely to learn more about these over the next several months.
Also, both judicial positions are up for election in a little over a year and candidates will start their planning this fall. The spotlight on the court is not likely to go away soon.
In the short term, many will watch to see how Morgan and Larson go about managing the court and establishing some level of a cooperative relationship.
The process and the appointment of Larson are a big gamble for the city manager, who made the appointment, and the city council, who confirmed it.
But the person who may actually control the outcome is Morgan. His and Larson’s leadership will set the court on a new course. Only time will tell what that course will be.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at email@example.com.