Mayor Jim Ferrell is fond of accomplishing historical firsts. If the City Council follows through on banning marijuana-related businesses in the city, Ferrell may veto the motion. It would be the first mayoral veto in the four years we have had a strong mayoral form of government.
But Ferrell also faces the prospect of being the first mayor to have his veto overridden. History aside, what does Ferrell gain by that action? And, why would the council want to ignore the wishes of a majority of the people who elected them?
When the issue was on the ballot, 53 percent of city voters voted to legalize marijuana. The council motion in favor of the ban passed 5-2, with Deputy Mayor Jeanne Burbidge and Councilwoman Lydia Assefa-Dawson, Kelly Maloney and Councilmen Martin Moore and Bob Celski in the majority. Councilwoman Susan Honda and Dini Duclos voted against the motion. The issue will be before the council for a second reading and another vote at the April 21 council meeting. The same 5-2 vote to ban marijuana businesses in the city is expected.
If Ferrell does veto the council action, the council would need five votes at the first council meeting in May to override his veto and move the ban into law. Since five voted for it, it would appear an override is likely. Most council watchers thought the issue would pass 4-3, with Moore following his previous position of opposing the ban. But he switched sides, providing the crucial fifth vote.
Ferrell is in an awkward political position. He switched parties to become a Democrat when he ran for mayor, and the Democrats have been strong in support of marijuana legalization. Also, Ferrell has upset some key Democrats by, among other things, giving the key to the city to a Republican candidate for the state Legislature. Had he waited until after the election, it might not have been a problem. But right now it is a serious problem.
Additionally, Ferrell was not a leader supporting marijuana. That’s unsurprising since he is a former county prosecutor. But he is up for re-election in two years and needs to show that he listens to the voters.
Honda and Duclos are up for election this year and want to follow the voters’ wishes. Celski isn’t running for re-election and most City Hall watchers don’t expect Burbidge to run again in two years. They can vote however they want with no political repercussions.
Democrat Assefa-Dawson supported some Republican candidates last year, which provided an opening for fellow Democrat Anthony Murietta to run against her. Marijuana provides a key difference between the two candidates for voters to consider.
Maloney isn’t up this year and Moore has withdrawn from running for the Legislature, so neither face immediate voter reaction. Both are Republicans and their party generally opposes marijuana anyway.
Both Moore and Maloney have commented that they believe if a vote were held today, legalization would fail. However, others argue that, unlike golf, we don’t get mulligans and the majority voters’ wishes are how we decide elections in a democracy.
From Ferrell’s point of view, if he vetoes the council’s ban, he keeps faith with the voters and his new party, the Democrats. And if the council overrides his veto and the ban is upheld, he may also think he wins again, because that is closer to his personal belief and it helps him with some conservative voters. Right? Wrong!
Not only would that look like duplicity to the voters, but any mayor whose veto is overridden looks weak as a leader. Generally, it isn’t good for the city’s top elected official, who also has aspirations for higher office, to look weak to 53 percent of his own voters, let alone the rest of the region’s voters.
If Ferrell does veto the action, it becomes critical that his action is not overridden. He needs a win in the “listening to voters” department. He ran on a platform of wanting a public vote on the Performing Arts and Conference Center. The issue divided the community for a decade and still does because many voters feel they never got their chance to vote on such a big issue. Many voters feel ignored and left out because once in office, Ferrell never put a resolution in front of the council to call for a public vote and allow the voters to put closure to the issue.
And if Ferrell was willing to look out for voters, he should have chosen the performing arts center public vote, not marijuana. If Ferrell loses this issue, rather than solve his political dilemma, it actually multiplies his problems.
He also can’t just let the council action on the ban stand without his signature or he also looks weak. Ferrell only wins if he can find one of the five council members who will not vote to override his veto. If it passes 4-3, Ferrell’s veto stands and he wins. Every mayor faces a “must win” event early in their tenure. This is such a moment for Ferrell. Establishing his leadership for the long run is that important.
Some council members are gaining a reputation for ignoring the voters and feel justified in setting the election results aside on this issue, as they they think voters might feel differently now than they did last fall. They believe an election “do over” would show that. Interesting idea. Assuming they don’t want to redo their own elections, but really want to demonstrate that they do listen to, and trust voters, then let’s put their theory to the test.
Put both marijuana and the performing arts center on the fall ballot at the same time. Then follow the voters’ wishes. What do you think the result would be?
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: firstname.lastname@example.org.