Last Saturday morning six council members and 18 candidates vying to replace former council member Jesse Johnson met at 8 a.m. and anticipated going most of the day. But after nine hours of interviews, discussions, and ahead of schedule, it was the last five minutes that turned the well-organized process into chaos and arguments. The ending was a reminder that despite all the planning and intended good will, it is still a political process, with winners and losers.
All 18 candidates were invited to sit in another room so only the interviewee would hear the set of questions they would all be asked. Many of the candidates have, or are, serving on city commissions or have run for or held office, which gave them an advantage in system, policy and campaign knowledge. For others it was their first experience in discussing city policy and politics. Several of the newcomers gave thoughtful and interesting answers that will result in them being considered for appointment by the council to other boards or committees.
Others still have homework to do about how the city actually runs and what policies and laws Mayor Jim Ferrell and the council follow, and how other community institutions all fit in.
Pre-interview speculation centered on Tony Pagliocco who appeared to have the support of two council members. However, he was never nominated, suggesting his DUI, continued probation, and lack of candor or clarity on the topic may have been an issue for other council members.
After the interviews the council adjourned to executive session to discuss the “qualifications” of the candidates.
When they returned to the council chambers Ferrell read the council rules, which say the council will make nominations to establish a list to vote on.
But the key portion of the council rules Ferrell read says: ”Elections will continue until a nominee receives a majority of the remaining council members.” A majority is four. The rule then states “the mayor will declare the nominee receiving the majority vote as the new council member.”
In the council nominating round, Lydia Assefa -Dawson nominated Joe Bowman, Hoang Tran nominated Greg Baruso and Joe Bowman, Susan Honda nominated Katherine Festa, Mark Koppang nominated Jack Dovey, Martin Moore nominated Janis Clark and Greg Baruso, and Linda Kochmar nominated Ron Walker and Jack Dovey.
In the first voting round, Assefa -Dawson voted for Bowman, Tran voted for Baruso, Honda voted for Festa, Koppang voted for Dovey, Moore voted for Baruso, and Kochmar voted for Dovey. Baruso and Dovey advanced to the second round with two votes each.
Tran held the view that since he and Jesse Johnson had been elected at the same time and Baruso fit the Johnson profile as a person of color with moderate views, his appointment would keep faith with the voters. Baruso had previously run for the Legislature as a Democrat. Koppang felt Dovey brought experience and history that might serve the council well. Dovey is a Republican.
In the second round Assefa-Dawson, Tran and Moore voted for Baruso while Koppang, Kochmar and Honda voted for Dovey. A 3-3 tie.
Since Ferrell had just read the council rules stating “elections will continue until a nominee receives a majority of the remaining council members,” everyone expected there to be more debate and a third round of voting. However, under state law, there are only a few circumstances that the mayor can cast the tiebreaking vote — this is one. In anticipating this possibility I had checked with outside city attorneys to verify Ferrell’s authority. Council members had the same questions and in behind the scenes discussions the council felt that Ferrell would not intrude on the council process and exercise that option.
However, as soon as Ferrell realized it was a tie, he announced his vote for Baruso. Everyone was stunned as council members tried to talk above the noise. Council President Honda challenged Ferrell, saying she was surprised. She later said that Ferrell “didn’t allow the council to finish its process!” Explaining this had happened before and Ferrell had not interceded and had let the council continue voting. Koppang was clearly not happy with the surprise and expressed his view that a breach of “trust” had occurred by not letting the council continue to debate and vote.
Why did Ferrell exercise his vote? Afterward he said he thought Baruso would be a logical replacement for Johnson. Others thought it was partisan as Baruso was a Democrat and Dovey a Republican. With Koppang, Moore, Kochmar and Dovey the Republicans would have a council majority. Although, if Moore had voted for Dovey rather than Baruso, Dovey would have had four votes for the appointment, and there would be no tie for Ferrell to break. Moore said he voted for Baruso because the council position is non-partisan.
Ferrell has frequently acted more conservative than progressive and some observers thought this was his way of staying in the Democrats’ good graces since he is up for re-election next year. Another thought, since Ferrell’s relationship with this council has not always been smooth, Ferrell’s intervention might put Baruso in Ferrell’s debt, although that seems unlikely.
None of the council members were unhappy about Baruso getting the job as they all know him and appear comfortable with his selection. But how it occurred will likely be a source of friction.
There will be many other interpretations of Ferrell’s actions, and this episode will have repercussions among the eight elected officials that run City Hall. Trust is only one casualty, respect and cooperation might be others.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.