Mayor threatens Mirror and free press

The mayor’s job is to manage City Hall. Ours is to report the news, and provide independent comment.

Bob Roegner

Bob Roegner

One of the differences between the U.S. and Third World dictatorships is our Constitution that protects certain rights that have come under attack from foreign countries and our own president. One of the most cherished is freedom of the press from government threats and intimidation.

Even if you don’t always agree with what the media writes, it is still independent. President Trump has called the media the “enemy of the people.” They are not; their job is to give the reader objective comment on the actions and behavior of the president, governor and mayor, along with other politicians. Anything Trump doesn’t like becomes “fake news,” even though much of what he says is inaccurate or misleading. Time Magazine recently named “Journalists” their Person of the Year, with the Capital Gazette and others on the cover.

Our Gazette is the Federal Way Mirror. Its mission is in its name, and is your award-winning hometown newspaper that provides you the same independent coverage. Its hard-working staff and part-time columnists bring you news and commentary of our local sports teams, business, students and your neighbors. They keep you informed about your school district, City Hall, state and county government. On occasion the paper leads cheers for a favorite son or daughter, but that is not its primary function. The Mirror takes seriously its watchdog responsibility to hold your elected officials and staff accountable for their actions, and not just parrot what politicians want you to believe. A politician’s goal is often re-election; the Mirror’s goal is objectivity and independence.

It is well known that Mayor Jim Ferrell has a thin political skin, short fuse and hates any form of critical comment. But as the most visible elected official in town, and by virtue of his position, he is the focus of significant media attention — and should be.

In another Trumpian moment, Ferrell followed Trump play No. 3 as he believes anything he says is “truth” and rarely misses an opportunity to attack anyone who doesn’t share his view of himself or his actions. Recently he had his staff do it for him. When Steve McNey was in the mayor’s office, he could usually be counted upon to provide the stability Ferrell needed and keep the mayor’s temper in check, but that has slipped in the last year as others with limited city experience have become more influential in Ferrell’s office. Whose interests they are serving is open to question.

Frequently there is behind-the-scenes pressure from the mayor’s office to influence a story or write a version they like better that is more heavy-handed than subtle. But a few months ago Ferrell may have gone too far and possibly set the stage for future abuse of the powers of his office. In a thinly veiled temperamental outburst to an opinion column I had written regarding my perception of several missteps by city government during 2018, he threatened the Mirror’s independent status as the city newspaper of record.

In a taxpayer paid, half-page ad he said: “As the Federal Way Mirror is, at this moment in time, our city’s paper of record.” Actually, that threat isn’t so thinly veiled. He further went on to say, “As the newspaper has chosen to tell you about your city with an opinion columnist on a paid contract, we will take every opportunity to correct the facts until balanced journalism returns to coverage of our city.”

Intended or not those statements reveal another Trumpian trait of telling the press “balance in journalism” is what I, as mayor, says it is, so write what I like or else! I should note that his paid ad contained errors, such as suggesting I was holding him accountable for the Independent Salary Commission awarding elected officials a pay raise. I wasn’t; I was holding him accountable for taking the raise, after raising taxes. I thought he should have returned the pay raise, as some council members did, to demonstrate good faith to the residents. Another error regarding Centerstage was corrected by city staff, and the former Centerstage director in a letter to the editor. On a third issue, I had consulted with outside city attorneys and other government officials and believe his city attorney was simply wrong on his interpretation of Ferrell’s authority. The column was my opinion, but was also accurate and supported by other independent views.

The column I write is about government and political accountability, and is intended to stimulate residents to think for themselves by offering views that may disagree with the message City Hall or other governments want you to believe. I don’t expect everyone to agree, but that’s the point, residents need to make up their own mind.

Ferrell is a very political mayor, and has tried to intimidate others in town for disagreeing with him, but this reached a new level. He continues to use tax dollars on his Mayors Memo’s, which as a paid ad becomes his own column at your expense, to advance his “opinion” as truth through political spin. During his first four years he spent over $10,000 on this approach. In 2018 he has spent approximately $4,000 and has added a Mayor’s Minute video. Add in a part-time $35,000 video person and a $65,000 a year communications staff person, and Ferrell effectively has created his own TV station, column and campaign department at taxpayer expense.

Ferrell recently disagreed with Trump’s view of the media and commented to me, “an independent press is crucial to the public good.” I agree with that sentiment and next time he is angry about a reporter’s or columnist’s story he should remember his own words and call McNey before acting, or hire advisors who can provide caution when needed. But, I also notice that there has been no apology to the staff of the Mirror during the intervening months.

Serving as mayor is a sacred trust; with authority goes responsibility. When, under color of office, you have the power to do something and threaten to actually do it, because someone disagrees with you, you cross a line. Frankly, this behavior was beneath the dignity I have witnessed from Ferrell and hope will not be repeated, or the threat actually acted upon.

The staff at the Mirror work hard, for low pay, because they care about what they do and they are good at it and deserve better treatment. This current group — reporters Haley and Olivia, editor Carrie, editorial director Andy, publisher Polly, and the sales staff of Cindy, Linda and Tamie are outstanding. I agree with Time Magazine, journalists should be honored for the integrity, honesty, ethics and courage they bring to their profession every day. Local independence from government intimidation is just as important locally as at the national level, maybe more. Everyone has a role to play in the betterment of the community. The mayor’s job is to manage City Hall. Ours is to report the news, and provide independent comment to the public. I am proud to be associated with the staff at the Mirror, and hope Mayor Ferrell will come to appreciate the difference in roles we all play.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading.

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

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