Council retreat: What kind of Federal Way do residents want?

Federal Way City Councilmembers plotted the future of downtown and discussed, but didn’t take any action, on attendance rules for their own meetings at the Jan. 21 council retreat.

Retreats are a way for cities to focus on their big goals and projects and chew through complicated issues that might otherwise take up a lot of the public’s time at a regular meeting. The retreat, held at Dumas Bay Centre, was open to the public. Councilmember Hoang Tran was absent from the retreat; Mayor Jim Ferrell excused him. All other members attended in-person.

The future of FW

What kind of Federal Way do residents want?

That’s the key question as the 32-year-old city, caught in the gravity wells of Tacoma and Seattle, strives to clarify its own civic identity. Reporter Himanee Gupta, in a 1995 Seattle Times piece, poetically referred to Federal Way as a “shopping center-laden, congestion-snarled community.”

Then, there were roughly 75,000 residents. Now the city is the tenth most populous in Washington state with more than 101,000 residents. And with the 2014 departure of timber titan Weyerhaeuser, a light rail station on the horizon and a population boom still echoing across the Puget Sound, Federal Way is at a decision moment.

Decades ago, single family neighborhoods and the lifestyle of driving to the mall to hang out was the popular way of building cities, Senior Planner Chaney Skadsen said. But younger demographics are showing more interest in urban, walkable lifestyles.

“The landscape is changing,” Skadsen said in a presentation on the city’s downtown future. “The landscape has changed.”

A good downtown is eclectic, with municipal anchors, different kinds of spaces, and restaurants and stores that cater to different income levels, Skadsen said. Quality outdoor spaces, good options for pedestrians and bicyclists and lots of ways to engage and learn from local history, culture and art help too, she said.

Getting the downtown is about balancing a lot of ingredients, community members and development goals, economic development director Tanja Carter said in a presentation on investment.

A few exciting projects in the city include, Carter said: An upcoming Smith Brothers dairy distribution center; the Dick’s Burgers spot opening at The Commons; an expansion by All City Fence into the city; Burlington moving into the old Sears building; and more development on the east side of the city courtesy of Pape Kenworth.

All that development also means more traffic, Deputy Mayor Susan Honda pointed out. City staff said the projects involve mitigation work for their road impacts.

City development tends toward single story, light constructions surrounded by asphalt, according to the city’s comprehensive plan. But the city could try to paint a different picture downtown in its next comprehensive plan amendment, Community Development Director Keith Niven said.

Those zoning changes could include requiring more parking garages and a higher ratio of building-to-surface parking for redeveloping businesses.

“We have been a suburban city for 33 years,” Niven said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but that lifestyle means you’re a household with at least two cars. You drive everywhere and you have to park.”

With a safer solution to crossing streets like 320th Street and Pacific Highway, the downtown area could be a place for “a one car household, a no car household,” Niven said, which are the kinds of residents Federal Way should expect to see more of.

Council meeting attendance

The council discussed possible changes to council meeting attendance rules. But they couldn’t agree on a policy around remote attendance and absence excusing, so they ultimately tabled the issue.

They differed most over whether to limit attendance over Zoom — something councilmember Erica Norton said was necessary for her snowbirding lifestyle, but which didn’t interrupt her ability to represent the city. Council president Linda Kochmar argued that state law and good governance calls on councilmembers to commit to attending council meetings in-person, with only occasional virtual appearances when unavoidable.

The city council’s current rules of procedures stipulates in section 11.1 that:

Councilmember absences are excused for the death of an immediate family member. They’re also allowed for illness of the councilmember or an immediate family member, if the councilmember is out representing the council, or for traffic, weather and accidents.

Three nonconsecutive absences per calendar year are allowed, as long as prior notice is given.

Councilmembers can attend remotely (such as via Zoom) with no hard limit, but attending from a remote location “is intended to be an alternative and relatively infrequently-used method.”

Matching state law RCW 35A.12.060, a councilmember vacates their seat if they fail to attend three consecutive regular meetings without being excused.

The city put together a draft proposal after consulting with council leadership (Mayor Jim Ferrell, Kochmar and Deputy Mayor Susan Honda). The major proposals, which aimed to encourage in-person attendance, included:

Adding nieces and nephews to the list of immediate family members.

Specifying that councilmembers are excused from one regular council meeting per year for vacations.

Allowing councilmembers to take a vote to consider if another’s absence should be considered unexcused, if at least one of them believes the presiding officer has erroneously excused an absence at the start of a meeting.

Limiting remote attendance to only three meetings per calendar year, with remote attendance over that amount counting as an absence. Someone attending remotely because of illness, for example, would be an excused absence.

Councilmember Jack Dovey expressed concern that allowing councilmembers to vote on absences could “pit councilmembers against councilmembers” and one day lead to excusal votes based on personal feelings or political sniping.

Norton said that seemed to be the point of the proposed changes — to punish those on council who take extended vacations that preclude in-person attendance. Council president Kochmar replied that she wanted to simply have a policy in place and not to single anyone out.

“I take three vacations a year; you all know I’m a snowbird,” Norton said. “I do attend remotely when we’re down at the house in Florida. … What really concerns me is, if we were to put the remote attendance at no more than three times per calendar year, according to last year, four or five of us would be off the council then. … I will be attending remotely, at least a third of the year. I know that, and I’ve been very honest and upfront with all of you about my life. … I’m still very much involved with the city. It’s not like I’ve deserted the place. I just feel like this is a little punitive.”

Kochmar agreed that occasional remote attendance was fine but said the council should make “every effort” to attend in person, in part based on legislation passed last year.

“I think we need to emphasize, according to HB 1329 and what you would expect from us, that we would make every effort to be at a regular council meeting in person if possible,” Kochmar said. “If not, by Zoom, fine. And moving forward, so that people running for office understand that no, you don’t get to do it by Zoom. That’s not something that should be part of your lifestyle. You’re here to represent the constituents. I think that’s what that House bill emphasized.”

Last year’s HB 1329 encourages agencies to make remote access and meetings records more available to the public, but it doesn’t specify guidelines on remote attendance by public officials — just that meetings should be held in a physical location where the public can attend, absent emergencies.

Kochmar said in a follow-up interview that she may have misstated HB 1329. Still, she said, councilmembers should be expected to show up in person on a regular basis, citing a report by the state Municipal Research and Services Center that recommended cities write a policy about when and how much remote attendance is allowed.