Roegner: Flag Day stunt backfires for Mayor Ferrell

On June 16 at the Flag Day celebration, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell announced that the name of South 320th Street would be changed to Veterans Way in honor of those who served.

But the seeds of reversal had actually been planted a few days earlier and would manifest themselves a little over a week later when Ferrell would make a second announcement. This time, Ferrell announced he was stepping back from the name change after receiving feedback from the community and veterans that there was not sufficient support for the idea. The street had been informally christened Veterans Way a few years ago with the name listed below its official numerical name. But to make the name change official, Ferrell would need to submit his request to the Federal Way City Council.

And therein lies the problem … and the rest of the story.

Council and community members admire the contributions of those who served in the military. But the Flag Day announcement caught many in both groups by surprise. The community feedback was swift, and as word made the rounds of the churches and coffeeshops over the next few days, it became clear that no preparatory work had been done by Ferrell.

The cost would be over $75,000. And though it would come from REET funds, not the general fund, the timing came shortly after a raise in the utility tax, a cut of Centerstage, and a pay raise for the mayor and council. The public thought there were better ways to spend their money. With the homeless challenge confronting the city, there was also a question of priorities.

Then more questions arose. It was found that no one had contacted the businesses or residences on 320th Street to assess the cost and inconvenience of changing their addresses. It isn’t as simple as it seems, and even making the effective date a year from now doesn’t reduce the costs such as letterhead, logos, business cards, billing statements and extra advertising. When questions were asked about those costs, Ferrell’s office said he was open to the idea of reimbursing businesses and residents. By then, it was apparent that no one knew how many of each were located along 320th Street, nor had any money been budgeted for such an idea.

There was also a cynical reaction by some of “just another photo op,” while others thought the attempt carried more political gain for Ferrell rather than sincere appreciation of veterans. Still others remembered that Ferrell had appointed a former council member to head a committee four years ago to come up with a way to recognize veterans. The mayor’s office has acknowledged nothing came of that effort.

The general view was the ceremonial name change was sufficient given City Hall’s continued search for additional income, such as the utility tax increase and the recent discussion about a new fee on storage houses.

Further, Ferrell again failed to recognize that he had a new council that was thinking it was time for a little more check and balance with the mayor. Some council members felt Ferrell had tried to bully them into the name change and, in his desire to claim credit on Flag Day, had not discussed the issue in any detail with council members who actually had the final approval. They felt he had tried to box them into a “yes” vote, assuming they wouldn’t dare question such an honor for such a worthy group.

But council members were getting negative community reactions, which allowed them to distance themselves from blame by pointing out the whole episode had been poorly handled by Ferrell and his staff. It also emboldened the council to tell Ferrell they would not schedule the name change for a committee discussion. Ferrell had no choice but to drop the idea.

But ever the politician, Ferrell even tried to claim credit for the withdrawal, saying it was his decision after listening to the public. The public certainly had an impact on the decision, but more with the council than Ferrell, as his office says it only got about 25 contacts. Recall that Ferrell had 200 people in the council chambers upset about the utility tax increase and 3,000 sign the petition to put it on the ballot, and it didn’t deter him from the tax at all.

The final scene played out at last week’s council meeting as council members were prepared to tell their side of the story unless Ferrell made the facts clear. To his credit, Ferrell did apologize for not bringing the council into the discussion and consulting with them in more detail prior to his announcement.

Lessons learned? This is a council that wants a balance in power with Ferrell – and will react when they feel bullied or excluded. It shouldn’t have taken a council demand to get Ferrell to fess up to the overriding reason he withdrew, which was lack of council support.

Also, some council members still wanted to scold Ferrell in public. But Deputy Mayor Susan Honda made the right call by taking the high road and allowing Ferrell to retreat with the apology.

Ferrell needs to adjust his style to the new council, and the many controversies this year suggests a need for an upgrade in his internal advice system. This episode could have been prevented.

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

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