Like the other candidates for Federal Way mayor last year, Skip Priest made the commitment “to have a business-friendly City Hall.”
But now he is actually in office where policies and decisions have implications. The recent issue with Branches Garden Center illustrates competing needs.
How do you balance a political platform of being pro-business with your responsibility to enforce city safety codes and ensure that all citizens are treated equally and impartially — when the end result might be closing a popular business?
This is among the most challenging issues any mayor faces. It is particularly difficult for a new mayor because he is handling the first of such challenges and may set a precedent in the eyes of City Hall watchers, interest groups and staff.
Many in the community wondered what he would do. Would Priest be an activist mayor and wade in, save the business and overrule city staff who are following the codes? That could earn him some political points in part of the community. Or will he back the city staff and demonstrate that the rules apply equally to all and are to be taken seriously?
The community and the staff may be looking for different things in their mayor. The staff is certainly trying to figure out Priest. How does he think? What gets his attention? Is he a boss who will back them when things get difficult, be it this issue or others that might be more complex? Or, will he be a politician who gives in to pressure? Will he potentially incur legal liability for the taxpayers by giving business a break in an effort to promote a cooperative attitude?
It can be an awkward position for the mayor. If he backs the city staff, it might give the appearance he is controlled by them. If he supports the business, it could be interpreted that he is someone who will defer to the business community.
And since the public rarely sees the details that provides the full picture, the Branches controversy presented Mayor Priest with exactly this Hobson’s choice. All mayors face these challenges. They are part of the job of trying to govern. Neither option may be fully descriptive, but frequently complicated issues get interpreted in simplistic ways.
In the city manager form of government, the manager usually will hold the line on the codes unless the city council starts taking too much political heat and the city’s position doesn’t garner much community support. Then the manager may try and find a way to compromise. But while the mayor may be sensitive to council members or community viewpoints, the buck stops with him, not them. In neither form of government can the mayor or manager simply ignore the rules or codes.
It would have been helpful if the business in question were polluting the air or the water or were simply an unsympathetic business. Branches is a popular longtime business that presents a reasonable argument about an industry the owners know a lot about. And, while Branches did make an effort to comply with some of the requested corrections, the paper trail suggests the issue stretched out longer than it should have.
The final area of disagreement with Branches was over the type of roof covering and how safe it would be. Both Branches and the city want the property safe, but had different solutions in mind. There was also the cost of the remedy that Branches owners felt was excessive and could put them out of business. If the city were going to compromise anyway, sooner is usually better than later — so you can get the issue behind you and move on to bigger issues with minimum political
fallout. Once the story hits the newspaper, as it did earlier this year, compromise gets much harder as people in the community start choosing sides and positions harden. It moves from a code issue to a political controversy.
Priest probably should never have been in this position this early in his term. Not after two years of the staff and Branches working together. Someone in City Hall should have made this decision much earlier or recommended it to Priest before the issue generated a significant level of community debate.
Unfortunately, the city became the easy target. But if a fire had occurred and people were hurt because the city hadn’t enforced its rules, the citizens would have blamed the city. Priest has acknowledged that he lost sleep over the possibility of people being hurt, or worse, in the event of a fire.
Priest’s final determination in a Voluntary Correction Agreement allows Branches to remain open and comply with the city standards, but in a phased approach by 2013 rather than all at once.
Priest didn’t cave in, and he wasn’t unreasonable either. There was never much doubt that some type of compromise would occur. No mayor wants to close a business; that makes it difficult to try and recruit other businesses to come to Federal Way. The question was how much latitude would Priest give. He gave two and a half years. Is it a perfect solution? No, but it may have been one of the few available. And there is still a risk attached to it.
So, until 2013, please no matches at Branches.