Elected mayor debate: Round two | Bob Roegner

Like the phoenix, the issue of what form of government we should have has risen again.

Should we continue with Federal Way’s current council-manager form, where the council sets policy and hires a professional city manager to carry it out? Or should we switch to a mayor-council form, where we have a “strong mayor” who is both the political and administrative leader?

Many in the community wonder why we are voting on this topic again. Federal Way Works, a committee that opposes the change, states: “The voters decided this last year.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, the issue was debated last year and the vote to retain the current system was a solid 55 percent to 45 percent. But also, no, because the same group, Accountability Comes to Town (ACT), exercised the same initiative option and obtained enough signatures to force another vote this year. So, we’ll have the same debate all over again.

But is anything different? Actually, there are some differences to consider as this past year has provided us with both civic and political lessons. Earlier this year, the city council in a split vote decided the city manager wasn’t performing at the desired level and did not renew his contract, effectively firing him, then started a search for a new city manager.

ACT members suggest that had we had an elected mayor, many of the leadership deficiencies would have not been there and the community wouldn’t have had to go through that process. Federal Way Works says the process itself proves the system works. If deficiencies are obvious, you can fire a city manager anytime. But with an elected mayor, you have to wait for election.

ACT makes the argument that a city the size of Federal Way should have a directly accountable leader who provides a clear consistent message regionally and in Olympia. They also believe the mayor should be elected by the people rather than by the council, as is currently done. They point to the governorship and the King County Executive as examples that should be followed at the local level.

Federal Way Works counters that in larger races, the pool of candidates is big enough to have qualified candidates. While on the local level, it may be possible to have some qualified candidates in your community, it is not certain, and even if you did, wouldn’t it be better to have a professionally trained manager rather than a politician? They argue that a politician is more vulnerable to pressure from special interest groups and campaign donations that might have strings attached. The city manager system is designed to keep politics removed from day-to-day operations.

But beyond these debating points and others you will hear, politics and ambition have moved from background to center stage. City councilman Jim Ferrell was the only council member to support the change in government last year, but as the debate unfolded, he moved into the background because he didn’t want his interest in becoming mayor to detract from the debate. He now feels that was a mistake, and has charged full speed into leading the effort to pass the initiative. At the same time, he is fully candid in stating his intent to run for mayor if the initiative passes. His previous perception has proved accurate. Right or wrong, Ferrell’s personal and political ambitions have become part of the debate.

His opponents point out his previous interest in running for the Legislature and suggest he is a candidate in search of an office. They believe he is trying to create his own next stepping stone with the strong mayor initiative. While Ferrell doesn’t hide his ambition, he also states that if the initiative passes, and he runs and loses, that would be all right with him because he believes the change in form of government would be better.

Ferrell and ACT have hired a professional campaign manager to get their message out, and have found donated office space. So far, they have raised $20,000. Federal Way Works is led by Jerry Vaughn and Carrol Clemens, and will rely on volunteers, but the group is also out raising funds for the campaign.

Last week, the Federal Way City Council voted to oppose the change to a strong mayor format. The Federal Way Chamber of Commerce also weighed in with its opposition to the change, while the police guild voted to support the initiative.