Elected mayor, city council and a tangled political web | Bob Roegner

“Oh what a tangled web we weave” seems an apt description. An already difficult year for the Federal Way City Council got even worse last week when the council reluctantly voted to place a citizens initiative for changing the city’s form of government from council-manager to mayor-council on the ballot this November.

The initiative had a low threshold of 1,568 signatures, so the qualification for the ballot was not a surprise.

Behind the scenes, previously strained relations among the seven council members have now become frayed. Five of the council members oppose the change and question the role of their colleagues in the initiative. But other issues over the past year have contributed to the current rift in their relationships.

Last fall, the city manager was hanging on to his job on a 4-3 council split. Most City Hall watchers had felt if a change were going to be made, the least disruptive time would be last winter or this coming winter. But budget disagreements and spring fiscal concerns reversed that to a 5-2 vote to not renew his contract.

Because some of the council members had a “favored candidate,” they short circuited the city manager selection process, upsetting other council members who wanted an open “best candidate” approach. When no one could get the necessary four votes for their candidate and the overall field was weak, the process fell apart. Now they have hired a professional search firm and started over.

Then, Eric Faison’s decision not to run again created a political opportunity as the two council sides each sought candidates for his seat that would be supportive of their goals. Adding to the spring turbulence was the perception among many supporters of Linda Kochmar and Jeanne Burbidge that other council members had “recruited” candidates to run against them.

Into this vacuum of leadership jumped Accountability Comes to Town (ACT), which wants to throw out the city manager form of government and replace it with a “strong mayor.” To many, ACT’s motive is not an esoteric thoughtful vision of a better future in a different format, but is really an opportunistic power grab to try and install their own person in the mayor’s chair. Opponents argue we had that debate last year, and the citizens voted to retain the current form. Council member Jim Ferrell’s recent dual announcement of a leadership role in ACT’s campaign, and his candidacy for mayor should the initiative pass, seemed to confirm his and ACT’s true motivation, according to opponents.

Mayor Jack Dovey had already contributed to the council’s internal mistrust by signing the change of government petition. Some council members fear that by signing and changing his position on the issue, then he, as the city leader, may not only be signaling his own political interest, but undermining the city’s search for a professional city manager. Good candidates may think twice about applying.

To the council’s credit, personal and political disagreements have stayed below the radar when they are discussing city policy, and the business of governance continues in a responsible manner. Overall, this is a good city council when compared to others in the region. But the events of this past year have brought differences in goals and style to the surface in a manner we rarely see here.

As council elections, the initiative to change the government structure, and the city manager search, head toward a winter political climax. Many are asking: “Who will be running our city in 2010?” Will City Hall find stability and move forward, or will we have another year of uncertainty and political upheaval?