Since the voters elected to change the form of city government from council-manager to mayor-council, some elected officials remain reluctant to embrace all of the changes necessary to fully implement the voters’ will. The primary fear is loss of power, but the other worry seems to be plain old habit.
The veteran council members understand the old relationships and processes and are comfortable with them. They in turn have trained the newer council members, who have limited experience, to know the difference. Adding to the misunderstandings, some council members have been influenced by other cities where councils have tried to take more power from the mayor through political maneuvering.
A few months ago, a policy disagreement between Mayor Jim Ferrell and Councilwoman Kelly Maloney escalated to the point where the mayor exceeded appropriate behavior. But it also underscored a process of mayoral participation in council policy debate that was a hold over from the council-manager system when the mayor was a member of the council and not separately elected.
The manner in which City Council meetings have operated the last five years is a reflection of past process as the mayor chairs the meeting but also participates like an eighth council member. However, in the strong mayor form of government, the mayor is supposed to chair the meeting in an impartial manner and let his staff do the talking in response to questions from council members.
It is the council’s meeting and their questioning the mayor’s staff is part of their check and balance responsibility on his administration. The mayor should keep his participation to a minimum and, when speaking, should give up the gavel to the deputy mayor. The mayor is not a voting member of the council, however should a tie vote among council members occur, the mayor could actually vote to break the tie in certain but limited circumstances.
But the episode between Ferrell and Maloney caused the mayor and council to recognize the need to change the process. At the time, the mayor said he will limit his comments in the future and also turn over the gavel to the deputy mayor while speaking. That is a good start, although it was a painful lesson. We will see if the approach actually becomes part of the process or was discarded when tempers had cooled.
In the mayor-council structure, the two main differences are separation of power between the branches of government and more power in the mayor’s office. The mayor controls the administration and is a policy partner with the council as the mayor proposes policy. The council loses power over the administration but gains power in its check and balance authority over the mayor’s administration.
But there are other changes the mayor-council should make. The mayor should make appointments to all city boards and commissions allowed by law, with confirmation by the City Council. That divides the responsibility and provides a check and balance. Currently, the council makes most appointments and also does the confirmation. No check and balance.
Regular readers will recall a very controversial appointment to a city board a few years ago caused in part because the council controlled both functions, but did not control the staff that were responsible for the background checks. Ferrell was a council member at that time and seemed to get the misplaced blame for the circumstances. The council should give the mayor additional citizen appointment authority. If they don’t, the mayor should request it.
The council has identified the staff positions that affect city policy that they want to formally confirm. They do, and should, confirm all major department head appointees. This check and balance is necessary to ensure the mayor is hiring qualified and capable people, rather than friends and political allies. This is Federal Way, not Chicago.
The confirmation process should not be used to substitute the council’s opinion for the mayor’s, only to ensure that those hired are actually qualified for the job. But the council needs to repeal the policy that gives them confirmation of a staff person to assist them. The council does need part-time staff support. But it is not a policy position and all staff work for the mayor. The council wants approval over the person and wants input into that person’s evaluation. That is not appropriate in the new system. It is the mayor’s responsibility to appoint and have someone supervise and evaluate the staff person. The council has been reluctant to change even though the mayor can simply ignore the council on the subject if he chooses.
It is common for a mayor to hire one exempt staff position to work in his office and deal more with politics than policy. They work on daily political issues with the council, community and other governments, not campaign politics. Most city decisions have a political consideration to them and the mayor may need someone to balance discussions with staff technical advice.
The mayor is the city leader and its chief spokesperson on any policy affecting the city. It’s a power that is awkward if not handled carefully. The council may have its own view and, depending on the issue, the mayor should consult with the council leader, currently called the deputy mayor, on the rare occasions it might be necessary. The No. 2 in city government, currently the mayor’s chief of staff, should never speak for the city unless specifically authorized by the mayor.
This brings up titles. The chief of staff has no independent power. He is an extension of the mayor and only has those duties specifically conferred upon him by the mayor. The council should have no role in a job description or a confirmation, although some cities do allow both. The chief of staff is really the deputy mayor, as deputy mayor is generally a subordinate staff position to the mayor.
A chief of staff position is usually created for the internal workings of the mayor’s office devoted to policy development and the deputy mayor usually runs the daily operations of City Hall under the mayor’s broad direction. Both positions are usually found only in very big cities or in large counties. King County has both, but Federal Way isn’t big enough for both positions. The top staff person should be converted from chief of staff to city administrator, or deputy mayor, which would be a more accurate description of the roles.
The council leader should be called both the council president and the mayor pro tempore. That position leads the council and fills in as mayor if an emergency should arise. But they are not subordinate, they are leadership titles in the legislative branch of city government. Like Federal Way, some other cities have chosen to use the deputy mayor title because they think it sounds more impressive.
I have also noticed some city documents exchanged with other cities contain a signature block for the deputy mayor. The mayor is always the city signatory as authorized by ordinance or resolution passed by the council. Although there may be times when the mayor may consult with the deputy mayor on informal agreements with other cities prior to signing, the deputy mayor should have no signature role. Some council members don’t like it but the mayor is the leader of the city. If the council doesn’t like something he negotiates, they can vote against it but they should not be signing it. That blurs the line between executive and legislative branches.
Also further blurring the line, have been the discussions on “branding” the city and adding an “education initiative.” Some council members, with apparent mayoral approval, act more like high level staff than legislators. The council is supposed to view policy initiatives at arms length with a critical and objective eye.
If they are also doing some of the staff work and have a vested interest in the outcome, objectivity becomes hard to find. On the other hand, if they are jumping in because they are dissatisfied with the mayor’s staff efforts, there are other approaches that should be pursued rather than cloud roles and responsibilities.
At a recent council meeting, one of the department heads actually cautioned a council member on the potential impact of the council’s action regarding tax credits in a very direct manner. But just as the council member was doing their job in questioning, so was the department head doing his job. It’s appropriate to ask hard questions, but it is also appropriate to return hard answers and keep the lines of responsibility clear.
Government should reflect the needs and desires of the governed. But a disturbing pattern is developing. A majority of our elected officials agreed to build the Performing Arts and Events Center, which is the biggest expenditure in city history, without a public vote. And despite voter approval, they didn’t want to allow retail marijuana sales and used their legislative power to establish a moratorium and thwart the public will. And after almost five years, they still haven’t changed some of the basic policies to implement the public’s will in changing to the strong mayor form of government. If they are going to keep the council-manager form of government, maybe the public should just change it back.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: firstname.lastname@example.org.