Recently, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell gave his annual State of the City address.
It was a fitting kickoff to the election season. The hyperbole was expected, but the taxpayer-paid half-page and full-page ads, though legal, emphasized the political goal of the speech and its direction at a portion of the electorate.
For policy topics, it may have been one of Ferrell’s best speeches since he was first elected mayor. But that is also part of the problem. This is the speech he should have given seven years ago. It raised a lot of policy questions that are not new, but would have been then, as if they had suddenly become an issue.
COVID-19 is the only new issue confronting City Hall. At his first State of the City address, I thought he had morphed into his mayoral predecessor, Skip Priest, because everything was going to be the same as before. Ferrell even went from opposing the Performing Arts and Event Center to supporting it. We still have the same challenges we have had since he was elected. But he did a better job with the topics, and like the PAEC, Ferrell now seems to support many things he used to oppose.
Homelessness remains a challenge, and he stretched his homeless encampment initiative to include service when his focus has primarily been to have the police closing homeless encampments on public property or having the property owner do it on private property. However, the precedent-setting Boise case says cities can’t make the homeless leave public property unless there is someplace for them to go.
Remember all the photos of the mess the homeless made that Ferrell used to show? For the past seven years, Ferrell has been primarily a “run them out of town” advocate. Churches and nonprofits have mostly handled the issue, though the city has given some pass-through funds to help out and did help the Federal Way Day Center get started. But there is still no long-term plan to solve the homeless problem, with yearly measurements, as part of the city’s annual goals. Is the problem getting better?
King County has been far more aggressive in seeking solutions with their recognition that COVID-19 has changed the model from everyone sleeping in a large open room to buying hotels. Recently, Ferrell has expressed support for the county buying a hotel in Federal Way to house the homeless in safer conditions. Will the city support the county effort with money or its own commitment of a building ? Or let the county take responsibility for Federal Way’s homeless?
If the city truly wants to help the homeless, then use Dumas Bay Centre, which is constructed like a hotel, and then connect it with a shuttle to the Day Center where referral services are available. The city has contributed community development block grant (CDBG) funds to the Day Center for overnight staffing. Had Ferrell brought up homelessness seven years ago, we might have had a plan and a solution by now. He mentioned saving money by dropping membership in the regional SCORE jail, which may have been a good idea, along with changing the arrangement with Lakehaven Water and Sewer District, which got the city more money without taking a vote to raise taxes because the city and Lakehaven serve the same taxpayers — although it did result in a lawsuit. Leaving the SCORE deal saved the city $4 million, and Federal Way got another $1 million from Lakehaven. Where will that money be spent?
Seven years ago, Ferrell wanted to add more police, and that has continued to be his priority with three more police officers this year. He announced that the debate over body cameras was over. That is great to hear if the message was aimed at the police department, but Ferrell could have added body cameras anytime in the last seven budgets he has submitted to the council — and didn’t. He has opposed the concept as too expensive.
If the city is fortunate enough to get either state or federal funding, body cameras will be great addition and send a message of transparency to both the police department and the many people of color that call Federal Way home. They are fearful of the police and have expressed concern about how the police treat the city’s minorities. A way to incorporate their concerns is adding a staff person whose job is to ensure systemic racism doesn’t get settled in Federal Way. But it was the Federal Way City Council that added the position for inclusion and equity over Ferrell’s objections. He has established a process that will involve many elements of the community, which is a course correction because he didn’t add the staff person in his own budget. But will the talent pool be deep enough to attract the candidates that a city of 100,000 residents needs?
Ferrell also noted the addition of two new staff to help with litter control and the use of the CARES Act funding to help several local businesses. Additional CARES funding was provided to local nonprofits to help residents pay their rent and keep them from becoming homeless.
These are difficult times as the two biggest challenges in most cities are homelessness, which COVID-19 has made worse, and racial justice. The political subtext of Ferrell’s speech was “I’m running again,” and he is concerned about a possible candidate from the political left running against him. So he emphasized several issues that previously had not been high priorities to him in order to discourage potential candidates. Had he taken a stronger interest in these issues the past seven years, we might already have body cameras. We might have avoided shootings and at least one use of force lawsuit. We also might have a police force that reflects our community’s demographics.
Breaking the council’s tie and voting for two people of color to fill council seats doesn’t replace the missed opportunity of actually listening to people of color. Had that occurred, our community might be more trusting of the police department. And had Ferrell made solving the homelessness problem a higher priority, we might already have a solution. Is Ferrell willing to seriously work on these issues, or is the tilt to the left only part of an election year strategy ?
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact email@example.com.