A citizen’s initiative to limit taxpayer subsidy of the Performing Arts and Events Center has restarted the debate about the role of residents’ participation in the decisions of their government. Unfortunately, the disagreements between the two sides have been harsh.
This past week, two Federal Way residents, Matthew Jarvis and Byron Hiller, created a bow wave of debate when they filed a citizen’s petition asking that the voters be presented a ballot initiative that, if passed, would limit taxpayer subsidy of the events center to no more than $100,000 per year. If found legal, it would allow initiative supporters to start circulating petitions for signature, and would have six months to get the required number of signatures to place the matter on the November 2016 ballot.
As a rule, I don’t like government by initiative. Too frequently, the process is hijacked by special interest groups with their own agenda, and self-interest supersedes rational debate. I read the proposition and felt it was unlikely to pass the city attorney’s legal review. She is charged with making that legal interpretation, and it didn’t pass.
That said, if there was ever an initiative that met the need for citizens to be able to petition their government for participation through a citizen vote, the Performing Arts and Events Center might be the one. City leaders didn’t see this coming but should have. I expected it many months ago. No matter how you feel about the events center, it has been a divisive and polarizing issue for several years that lacked any clear consensus.
Many residents have not felt heard and City Hall’s credibility and trust have eroded over time. A lot of people just don’t trust government, and to them it is with good reason. City leaders, think about how others might view your actions: No public vote on the events center, not even a discussion on a public vote; purchase of the former Target site for $8 million, but still no hygiene center for Federal Way’s homeless; ignoring the public’s vote in favor of marijuana and now we will have another ballot with a different title on the same topic; building a downtown park in 2014 and tearing it down in 2015.
For close to a decade, the city and residents have discussed and debated the events center. As it gathered political steam, its supporters became fewer citizen advocates fighting City Hall and more of a powerful political special interest group that appeared to control City Hall. Advocates made the project part of the political debate and supported or opposed candidates based on that one issue. They seemed untroubled by the view many held that the events center was a toy for rich people, and treated questioners as uninformed naysayers. One supporter felt poor people could learn by “volunteering at the events center.” As if volunteering at the events center was somehow even a consideration among the poor. The statement is the political equivalent of “let them eat cake.”
While events center leaders’ singular commitment and perseverance to their goal was impressive, somewhere along the way they lost sight of what was important in the fabric of a community. A building, no matter how attractive, does not represent the character or culture of a community. That is embodied in the people themselves.
A healthy community thrives on open discussion, inclusion, participation and understanding of differing points of view. In their zeal to accomplish their objective, many events center supporters became intolerant and demeaning of thoughts, needs and ideas that differed from their own.
Federal Way is not a rich community. It has many residents with lower socio-economic status and many who have to work two jobs to support their family. They can’t afford to attend a council meeting to be heard. They have to trust their government looks out for their needs. As a result, too many sections of public comment at City Council meetings were dominated by only the view of the supporters, and those that gave a different message were talked down to or even bullied through letters to the editor and web postings.
The current mayor and council isn’t to blame for all the behavior associated with our arrival at a point where citizens feel they have to look to a petition to be heard. But they do share the responsibility for the attitude of mistrust that has developed among many that they govern. Some council candidates have been afraid to question the project for fear of alienating its powerful backers.
But one who did, actually won. Mayor Jim Ferrell spent many years branding himself as the anti-events center candidate. It was a major difference between him and former Mayor Skip Priest, whom Ferrell defeated in 2013. Many say they voted for Ferrell for that reason, including petition-backer Jarvis. Ferrell wanted a public vote on the events center, as many in the community did. But almost as soon as he was in office, he switched sides and became a supporter. Ferrell never introduced a resolution to the council asking for the project to be placed on the ballot. It should have been done in January 2014. He then followed the Blue Ribbon Panel, which many viewed more as political cover for supporters than an independent study. Their report leaves a lot of wiggle room for interpretation. And the financing plan has always drawn significant criticism for its lofty assumptions. The mayor finally said this past week that the city may have “over-emphasized and set our expectations too high” on the federal tax credits.
He and members of the council have said they don’t hear complaints about the events center. That isn’t completely accurate as two council members recently raised concerns, and as soon as the Jarvis-Hiller petition hit the press, there were several website postings supporting it.
But City Hall has become an echo chamber where civil discourse and sharing of contrary opinions isn’t viewed favorably, and many have felt bullied for speaking up. The mayor’s statements in the Mirror last week came very close to attacking Mr. Jarvis and Mr. Hiller on a personal level and bordered on calling Jarvis a liar. That might help explain why the mayor and council don’t hear much criticism.
But Jarvis and Hiller may be reflecting public opinion, including Ferrell’s. When running for mayor in 2010 against events center-supporter Priest, Ferrell registered the same financial concern as Jarvis and Hiller do in their ballot measure, he said “but ongoing costs are the problem.” Isn’t that what Jarvis and Hiller said?
The city attorney ruled that the proposition didn’t pass judicial muster, and that came as no surprise. But that was also a no-win position for her. An outside opinion might have tempered assumptions. Jarvis may have chosen to drop the issue at that point but felt the mayor challenged him in a manner that unfortunately he responded to in-kind. Citizens get to vent, mayors are judged more by their ability to maintain their composure in times of stress. By the end of the week, cooler views were evident.
We are long past the point where all sides of the community should have been allowed to weigh in on the topic, if for no other reason than to put the issue behind us, and avoid more of the divisive exchanges we have witnessed. A vote represents inclusion and without that sense of participation and closure, City Hall’s credibility will remain in question. We do need something to vote on, and if there truly is the “widespread support” for the events center our elected official’s say there is, then a public vote to ratify that opinion shouldn’t be a concern.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: firstname.lastname@example.org.