Editor’s note: This column is the second article in a two-part series. Read the first column here.
City staff are frequently used to refute citizen comments that question city decisions. But how much is too much?
The mayor’s Chief of Staff Brian Wilson — some say the most powerful person in town — attacked the author of a comment on a couple of occasions. The most egregious case was an online comment posted by Matthew Jarvis, of Jarvis Financial, regarding the city’s purchase of the former Target site.
Jarvis, who is knowledgeable about money matters, was concerned the city was taken advantage of since the city paid $2 million more than what the property owner asked only a few months before. The city’s chief of staff, speaking for the “Mayor, Council, staff and citizens” accused Jarvis of a “reckless allegation of criminality regarding this property purchase is uncalled for, devoid of facts and without merit,” apparently thinking that Jarvis accused the city of dishonesty.
Jarvis does not appear to have done that.
While Jarvis did use the phrase “This deal screams fraud,” a close reading shows Jarvis was questioning the city’s intelligence in making the purchase, not their honesty and that Wilson overreacted to the first sentence without taking into account the full statement.
After seeing Wilson’s intemperate response and to avoid any misunderstanding, Jarvis posted a clarification, stating “I didn’t accuse anyone at City Hall of committing fraud, just looked like a fraudulent deal, (like maybe the seller made up an offer to trick the city into overpaying for the property.)”
This confirmed how many people read it the first time, and this was a view others raised. But whether you agree with Jarvis or not, or read it the way he intended or the way Wilson interpreted, the most important feature is that Jarvis has every right to his opinion.
Certainly the chief of staff has a right to his opinion and may have only intended to defend the city.
But when you have the title chief of staff and invoke the names of the “Mayor, Council, staff and citizens” in what appears to be a mini temper tantrum, the average citizen might feel it looks more like an attempt to bully or intimidate rather than a simple expression of viewpoint.
Additionally, Wilson may have overstepped his bounds as he did not consult the majority of City Council members in advance about using their name as an additional club against Jarvis.
The city communications manager says Wilson was speaking for the city as an entity. But that is not what Wilson said and, in the new form of government, Wilson cannot speak for the City Council without their approval.
When asked later, some Council members disagreed with Wilson’s statement and even the appropriateness of responding to Jarvis at all. Some felt Wilson’s response was heavy-handed and some simply thought Jarvis was entitled to his opinion.
And since many citizens in town likely agree with Jarvis’s concern, Wilson may not have been speaking for all the citizens either.
Free speech is a right we hold dear, as is the right to disagree with our government. The mayor and the chief of staff owed Mr. Jarvis an apology, not a public rebuke for stating his opinion.
But the apology should be done twice since they also misunderstood his point. Unfortunately, misunderstanding a writer’s point of view and overreacting is not a one-time occurrence.
There have also been times the city has misled the public about why their money was spent. Again, on the purchase of the former Target property, the public was told different reasons that the purchase was done so quickly.
In the paperwork regarding the purchase, there was a reference to the possibility of using the site for a future location for City Hall — an expensive idea but worth discussion.
Except, according to many sources, that idea was never discussed and some key elected officials don’t even know how the wording got into the paperwork.
Intended or not, the reference for a future City Hall was misleading. When clarification was sought on who authored and approved the inclusion of the statement, City Hall refused to provide the information. We now know it was not a planned purchase to coincide with city needs or plans, because there was no plan. The city bought the site quickly because a local businessman was in the process of buying it and the city had concerns about his intended use. Transparency?
City Hall’s thin skin has become more obvious and some believe it isn’t just aimed at making the city look good, but at controlling citizen dialog, media comment and trying to bend public opinion to the city’s advantage. The key to city executive staff behavior is Mayor Jim Ferrell. We know he has approved of some of their actions but we don’t know how much is on their own or directed by others using the mayor’s authority.
In most cities there would be no doubt that the mayor directs staff behavior, but in Federal Way there is room for question. Ferrell is a new mayor with only minimal supervisory experience. He is still learning.
There are key players, both elected and appointed, who are still wedded to the city manager system and that produces a confusing gray area of interaction between responsibility and loyalty. All but two of the department heads were promoted from within, and retain the same views and ways of doing things as before.
On several public occasions, a city department head has given a different message than the mayor at the same meeting. That’s abnormal in a strong mayor form of government.
And there are many people who are afraid to be critical of City Hall for fear of retaliation. They shouldn’t be, but they are. As Mr. Jarvis and others can tell you, maybe they have good reason.
But with the shielding and controlling, Ferrell may not realize that his City Hall looks eerily similar to the City Hall he ran against. It has remained “ins” and “outs” and “us” versus “them” and made possible by the same people who made the last mayor vulnerable.
As a populist without a clear philosophical rudder, Ferrell has significant latitude. He offers much hope and holds much promise, but a course correction is needed.
Is transparency real or just a catchy political word to trot out every election cycle?
Will citizens feel more free in the future to state their opinion or has City Hall captured Ferrell and diminished his potential along with citizens’ rights?
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: email@example.com.