As Neil Sedaka once crooned, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” But as Mayor Jim Ferrell has learned this past week, getting back together again isn’t always a picnic either.
Ferrell’s staff was in the initial stages of negotiating a new management contract when they decided that the love affair with Centerstage just wasn’t as exciting as it used to be and thought maybe a new relationship would be better.
After just two sessions, the city halted the discussion and gave a letter to Centerstage saying they would seek new management and Centerstage should vacate the building by the end of June. The letter was signed by the city attorney. It’s never a good sign when one side of a former romantic duo brings in a lawyer and says “get out by the end of the month.”
Like most relationships, this one started with so much promise. A few years ago, then-councilman Ferrell was among those leading the charge to move the city relationship with Centerstage from dating to a marriage with a written prenuptial agreement.
But that was when a Tacoma group of “outsiders” tried to steal Federal Way’s affections. The Tacoma competition had a very good proposal but Centerstage was “local” and tying the knot with local participants had a much more desirable outcome for Ferrell and other politicians.
If they went with the new, tempting, slinky and worldly outsider they would alienate many Centerstage supporters. For clarity, read “supporters” as “voters.” Sex appeal lost out to pure politics, and Centerstage got the contract.
Arts and cultural programs are rarely profitable, and the current contract specifically says the city won’t make any money. Government supports organizations such as Centerstage to provide local talent a way to bring different cultural opportunities to the community. Centerstage was retained because they are a significant community asset.
But with time, like many relationships, sizzle turned to fizzle and the city expectations seemingly changed overnight. The Parks and Recreation director convinced the mayor and the chief of staff that the city could make $150,000 if they took over the management themselves. And with that, the Performing Arts and Events Center entered the picture. Cue the femme fatale!
Centerstage supporters had long suspected that there was another, more attractive, new relationship developing.
Then the “he said, she said” political phase started as the mayor and his staff tried to appeal to public opinion for support, and the regretful words and recriminations started on both sides.
The city used six years of financial data totaling “a half a million dollars” to make the numbers sound really big rather than the current contract, which at $76,000, is pretty small and by comparison represents only a little more than half what the Performing Arts and Events Center director gets paid. According to the mayor, the Parks director and the facility manager said they did not believe the family theatre was being run in the best interests of the city.
Centerstage countered, with indignation suggesting the city was “disingenuous” and, unsurprisingly, dramatic, saying, “This will be the death of Centerstage.” Some Centerstage supporters accused the new, younger and more exciting performing arts center of turning the young mayor’s head. The marriage appeared headed for dissolution.
But then, politics once again took over. And after 800 friends of the jilted Centerstage showed whose side they were on in the court of public opinion, suddenly the city set a new negotiating meeting and to allow for additional sessions, a three-month extension was agreed to.
Actually, the city wanted this issue off the public radar fast.
Now both sides are pledging devotion and trying to work things out. There is no marriage counselor but they will try dating again to reinvigorate the relationship. As one city insider said, “We put the toothpaste back in the tube.” At best, that is wishful thinking. This was an unforced political error in judgment that did not have to happen. And potential candidates for mayor in two years took note of the weakness.
While the comparison to a romantic relationship was done with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, it also may be accurate. The contract will likely be signed and the relationship will continue, but the trust has been irrevocability compromised.
We don’t know for sure what was said in the meetings because both sides interpret the dialogue differently, but we do know that the city administration completely misjudged, and mishandled, a sensitive negotiating process. Did the city really overreact and just throw up its hands and terminate the contract? Or are the conspiracy theorists correct? Was there a plan to give management of the Knutson Theatre to the performing arts center director all along?
If it is the former, then city staff led their boss, the mayor, into another political trap and have tarnished his standing with an important voting block. You may recall the mayor had to step in and fire a “rogue” parks consultant over an allegation of proposed expenditures outside budget guidelines. In neither case should the mayor have been put in such an unwinnable and embarrassing public position. The chief of staff and department directors are supposed to keep the mayor out of trouble, not create it for him.
Ferrell came out looking bad on two counts. First, that his staff let the situation get out of control, and second, it appears all you have to do to get your way is send City Hall 800 emails.
You may not have noticed, but the City Council was nowhere to be seen. They kept a very low profile and let the mayor get out of his own mess without any support from them. My guess is, most of them would have sided with Centerstage had the issue gone to the council. They will gladly support the 90-day extension.
If, however, it is the latter, and Ferrell agreed to or directed his staff to try and replace Centerstage as managers with the new performing arts center director, then it was a bungled job that backfired. Changing the management may not be a bad idea, as that is probably not the strength of the Centerstages’s leadership anyway. But changing management shouldn’t also mean reducing Centerstage’s role to building tenant.
To finesse the issue into “an everybody wins” agreement, the city could simply provide a modest increase in the amount of money to Centerstage and redefine that the money will be allocated for the costs of community productions, including staff costs, and retain the theatre’s storage needs. In exchange, the city handles some or all of the management. Everybody walks away a winner and the relationship can have time to heal.
Ferrell and city staff did not look good in this latest episode and they need to ask themselves, “how did this happen, what did we learn and what needs to change in our management style to avoid this happening again?”
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: firstname.lastname@example.org.