Mayor outmaneuvers council on budget

Until the council gets additional training, Ferrell will continue to dominate the meetings.

Bob Roegner

Bob Roegner

Mayor Jim Ferrell’s priorities for the 2019-20 budget were police, maintaining the current workforce, a salary study, and starting to pay back some of the loans the city has incurred.

With the withdrawal from the SCORE jail contract and the vote to pass a utility tax to raise money done, the big decisions have already been made prior to the public hearings process, which consumed several nights. While the council didn’t have major disagreements with Ferrell’s proposals, their priorities were additional local funding for the homeless and providing support for the community’s youth — neither of which were Ferrell’s priorities. The final budget will be adopted at the Dec. 4 council meeting, though it remains fluid until the votes are actually cast.

To protect his priorities, Ferrell outmaneuvered the council, which was split, and his budget will stay largely as he presented it. But there was drama that pitted the police department — which has the biggest share of the budget — against the split council’s interest in funding a homeless project along with some of the recommendations from the two-year-old Violence Prevention Committee, and its outgrowth, the Youth Action Committee. Council members wanted both, but stumbled over where the money would come from.

Ferrell continued his habit of participating in the debate as an eighth council member, while still controlling the gavel. Unlike a city manager form of government, the mayor’s responsibility in a strong mayor system is to manage the meeting and stay out of the debate, although on rare occasions if the mayor needed to provide some clarification he should turn the gavel over to the deputy mayor.

But by using both roles, Ferrell has been able to both participate in the debate and direct his staff to debate council members who express opinions counter to Ferrell’s desired outcome. However, it is the council’s meeting and they should call on department heads, not Ferrell, if they want additional information. Past councils have allowed Ferrell, and former Mayor Skip Priest before him, to dominate the proceedings in this manner. However, there was a humorous moment as Ferrell actually reminded himself of his appropriate role not to advocate, although it didn’t last long.

During the budget debates, tempers flared on occasion and Ferrell and Council member Dini Duclos used parliamentary procedure to cut off debate, call for a vote, and silence Council member Martin Moore, who was making a valiant attempt to save a small amount in support of the needs of youth.

At one point a council majority, in an attempt to control police overtime costs that historically exceed $700,000 per year, voted to cap the police overtime budget at $500,000 with a proviso that the chief come back next August and request more money if needed. But that was dropped after Ferrell and the chief objected. It was a decent gambit to establish the council’s balance with the mayor.

Then the council voted to transfer $26,000 for the Housing Consortium and $25,000 for the Youth Action Committee from the police supplies budget to fund those items. Ferrell, who understands the budget better than most of the council, then called on Chief Andy Hwang to put pressure on the council to keep the money in the budget. Several residents also opposed taking money from police, even though it was supplies, not officers. One council member actually asked Ferrell where they should take the money from, apparently not understanding that Ferrell didn’t want it to come from anywhere, as he was opposed to the idea or he would have included it in the first place.

Council member Hoang Tran made the most valid point: “We are talking about $50,000 in a police budget of several million and we can’t find a way to come up with the money?”

The council viewed the homeless situation as a priority and wanted to set aside $100,000 to review the Homeless Committee report and then allocate money, or at least set aside the amount and reopen the budget later. Ferrell said he didn’t want to spend any city money on the issue and wanted the state to fund it. Ferrell said the Homeless Committee was his task group, and he was not asking for the money. The unstated seemed to be that even if the council appropriated the money he wouldn’t spend it.

But we did find out why the Homeless Committee has been so secretive all year. Ferrell has been negotiating an agreement with Mary’s Place in Burien to give them $100,000 of state money from last year’s legislative session to take care of Federal Way‘s homeless mothers and children. The committee, council and community were very surprised by Ferrell’s admission of this issue as no one was aware that any dealmaking was going on.

As the meetings drew to a close in anticipation of the Dec. 4 vote, there was consensus, led by Moore and Council member Mark Koppang, to revisit the homeless and youth issues again in March. Council member Jesse Johnson recused himself from the vote because he is a board member of the Youth Action Committee, although with no apparent personal benefit, and no conflict of interest evident, only disclosure of the relationship was likely needed and his participation could have continued. A recusal due to conflict of interest typically would require him to either leave the room or remain mute on the topic and not vote, though there was clearly some confusion. Ferrell ruled Johnson out of order when Johnson participated the second time, and explained that if he wanted to join the debate he would need to withdraw his recusal. Johnson later stated he thought he was doing what the rules and city attorney stated and would be allowed to speak, though not vote. But with Johnson sidelined, the issue lost its chief spokesperson.

One year into a new council, several things are becoming clear. Ferrell’s primary focus remains the police department, where much of his political support comes from, along with the Performing Arts and Event Center. The council is still uncomfortable with its role of check and balance on Ferrell and appears wary of confrontation. The two new council members Johnson and Tran are learning quickly, but both still need additional training on the budget, constructive debate and parliamentary procedure, as do all council members. The Association of Washington Cities annual convention and workshops are a must for the mayor and council members. Of major importance, if the council wants a balance with Ferrell, they need to remind him he is the mayor, not an eighth member of the council and correct him when he steps over the line, which is frequent. The council actually has a majority on some issues of disagreement with Ferrell, even though it won’t always be the same four together on each issue. However, they are unsure how to maneuver during a council meeting. Until they get additional training, Ferrell will continue to dominate the council meetings.

But they are not the rubber stamp of previous years, and they are learning, which may eventually lead to a balance of power between the two branches.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.

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