What could possibly go wrong at Federal Way City Hall?

Bob Roegner

Bob Roegner

After his big victory in last year’s mayoral election and with a four-year term in front of him, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell may have felt like quoting the often used phrase “what could possibly go wrong?”

In retrospect, almost everything. It has been a shockingly rough eight months for City Hall. The bad news, aided by some unneeded embarrassments, has been so bad that if it were a local election year, some incumbent officeholders would not survive the voters’ reaction.

In fairness, while some of the wounds were self-inflicted, not everything was the fault of our elected leaders. Some were problems put off from last year to avoid bad publicity in an election year, and others just go with the territory.

The year started with the tense, behind-the-scenes election of Susan Honda as deputy mayor that demonstrated that raw feelings from 2017 were still in play, and that rough politics can be played even at the local level. It was not leadership at its finest, and it played out in full public view.

In January, Ferrell ignored Ordinance 90-58 and closed City Hall, denying the public the use of the building they were paying for, and had all city employees go to the Performing Arts and Events Center to listen to his State of the City Address for time they were being paid their public salary. Appearances count and the appearance was bad. In his speech, Ferrell highlighted that our city was strong and would soon have an elegant new “grand staircase” to complement the PAEC. While the staircase will not be paid for out of the general fund, he didn’t mention that city finances were so weak he was preparing to ask for a tax increase.

The truth came out soon after as the mayor and council started letting the public know that the budget was in trouble. They wanted to raise residents’ utility taxes through the Lakehaven Utility District. That had come up in 2016. But the city kept spending and even incurred future costs by hiring more police officers through a COPS grant. The public assumed the budget was all right, but it wasn’t.

Good government philosophy took a hit as well. In 2017, mayoral candidates Ferrell and Honda, along with council incumbent Martin Moore and successful candidates Hoang Tran and Jesse Johnson, had opposed a utility tax increase, further suggesting to the public the budget was sound. Then in early March, Ferrell’s State of the City didn’t look so strong and he proposed the utility tax he had opposed. Honda and Johnson held their ground on what they had told voters and voted no, but other council members didn’t. That was followed by a citizen revolt that had about 3,000 voters sign a petition to put the utility tax on the ballot. Time ran out, but not residents’ anger at feeling misled.

The public was reminded that the PAEC was several million dollars short and loans were still needed. And though it was different funding, the continued planning for an expensive grand staircase for the PAEC served as an unpleasant reminder of public perception of priorities at City Hall. Many in the public remembered that Ferrell’s former Chief of Staff Brian Wilson had attacked the messenger — former “If I Were Czar” columnist Matthew Jarvis — for warning city officials that the funding plan was weak and would cause the need for a tax increase. Turns out Jarvis was right.

Then the city council raised the priority of solving the homeless situation and asked Ferrell to look for multi-pronged solutions. Ferrell did appoint a committee, but most of their work has been done out of public view, which has bred suspicion, especially since the PAEC committee was Ferrell’s idea and also done out of public view.

As the year progressed, safety in our schools came to the forefront with local students marching in support of their fellow students who were shot in Florida. Ferrell and some council members did not join the march to support the students. Council members Mark Koppang, Jesse Johnson, Martin Moore and Lydia Assefa-Dawson did march. But not much has happened since, raising questions about the level of commitment.

Then, politically speaking, and if possible, the optics got worse. On the heels of Ferrell and the council saying the city needed the utility tax, the Independent Salary Commission awarded Ferrell two 7.5 percent pay increases for this year and next year that will raise his salary to about $137,000 from $119,000. The city council members got a small pay raise.

Since many city staff and department heads had only gotten very small pay increases, it looked like the beneficiaries of the utility tax increase were Ferrell and, to a lesser degree, the council.

Many city employees fear retaliation if they criticize Ferrell’s actions, but there was a lot of discontent behind the scenes.

Then discussions about the next budget cycle resulted in more controversy as Ferrell cut the Centerstage Theatre contract from $100,000 to “you pay us.” Insiders have believed that cuts to Centerstage were not about money, but more about perceived competition with the PAEC — although the $100,000 was pretty close to what Ferrell needed to keep the University Initiative alive. Rumors continue to swirl of possibly selling Dumas Bay Centre to help pay for the PAEC.

Then in the strangest maneuver yet, in a year full of them, Ferrell announced at the Flag Day ceremony that he wanted to change the name of 320th Street to Veterans Way. With no warning, and no plan to cover the costs, council members and the public reacted with a firm “no.” Ferrell wisely backed off. But the move didn’t help City Hall’s credibility.

Then came the hotel debacle. The city had sold some land in 2017 for a hotel near the PAEC. The city mistakenly thought the new owners could settle an easement for a few hundred thousand dollars. When the new owners learned it would be millions, they sold the land back to the city, which had already spent the money it received and had to finance more spending. Now it is the taxpayers who own the property. How much will it cost to solve this problem?

Then the city lost a court case as the victim of police use of “excessive force” was awarded $640,000. Rather than take some time to review why choking was used by an officer and whether it should remain in use, Ferrell issued a statement backing police, who have been among his most active political supporters. It reflected more of Ferrell’s past as a prosecutor, rather than a thoughtful response from a mayor of all the people who was concerned about innocent victims.

It might be possible to have eight months full of this many problems, and there is a temptation feel sorry for Ferrell, but many of these problems are the result of building blocks from previous errors — or just bad judgment.

We still have a few months left in the year so it could get better … or maybe not. But as we approach the start of serious budget discussions, Lakehaven is suing the city over the utility tax, and some council members have raised the idea of giving back the COPS grant as a way to cut expenses. Even though other cities, such as Kirkland, have had public discussions about guns and safe schools, that has not been the case here, other than at the school district. The mayor and council have not convened the community to publicly discuss gun issues or proposals that could go to the Legislature.

We don’t know if there will be a temporary place for the homeless to sleep overnight this winter. The employment program for panhandlers and the homeless mentioned at Ferrell’s State of the City has not been announced, and we won’t have the Homeless Committee’s report until Christmas, which is in the middle of winter.

Back to the question, “what could possibly go wrong?” Apparently a lot. On the other hand, we will get a new elegant grand staircase. And the mayor got a pay raise.

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

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