Federal Way moratorium ploy goes horribly wrong | Inside Politics

The plan seemed simple enough; after all, Industrial Realty Group had opened the door. All Mayor Jim Ferrell and his staff had to do was quietly call a special council meeting Dec. 13 for the next day and have the City Council pass a six-month moratorium on development of the Weyerhaeuser property. No press release, just post it on the website and maybe no one would notice. Let a few residents near the property know so they could show up and provide visible support for the council while enjoying Ferrell’s clever maneuver to produce an unexpected victory for them, and him. But it all went horribly wrong.

Several City Council members have been playing politics with North Lake residents behind the scenes at Ferrell’s expense, saying it was unfortunate they couldn’t weigh in on the Weyerhaeuser Campus controversy and join in support of the residents’ efforts to stop the project. Earlier, at the urging of council members Kelly Maloney and Susan Honda, a study session had been called by the council to take public comment, even though the council knew it had no way to legally intercede as it had abdicated that authority. Intended or not, the move made Ferrell the target.

But IRG had provided a narrow window of opportunity when it announced that it had terminated its contract with Chill Build, which had applied for the fish warehousing center to be occupied by Preferred Freezer and Orca Bay. This sudden change raised questions as to whether IRG’s alleged vested interest was now unprotected.

The logic was, if the council could pass a moratorium before IRG could submit a new project similar enough to the one already protected, then the city could regain the control it had lost several months ago when Ferrell’s former chief of staff, Brian Wilson, appeared to partner the city with IRG on development of the property.

IRG had purchased the property for $70 million dollars and seemed to have vested rights to develop the land based on Ferrell and his staff’s comments. The city’s fear of a lawsuit from IRG has been communicated to residents and council members for several months. There has been some recent controversy, however, as documents appeared to show that Wilson had made an agreement with the real estate interests favorable to IRG, and the vested interest might still be an open question.

Call it miscalculation, inexperience or an underestimation of how fearful council members were of getting the city, and possibly themselves, sued by a developer with deep pockets, but this simple plan went terribly awry.

First, someone did notice, and contacted IRG for comment. IRG then brought in its legal representative, who notified the acting city attorney that any such action by the City Council would result in a $70 million dollar lawsuit being filed against the city the next day. Since the council went into executive session during the special council meeting to discuss potential litigation, it is likely the threat from IRG was the reason.

At this point, the “simple plan” started to fall apart. It seems highly unlikely that Ferrell or his Senior Policy Advisor Steve McNey would not have taken such a significant gamble of calling the meeting and asking for the vote, unless the mayor’s office felt it had at least five solid affirmative votes. Some insiders believe Ferrell and McNey thought all seven council members were in favor of the moratorium.

A procedural motion to suspend the rules and move to final vote passed unanimously, but the final vote to approve the moratorium failed 4-2, with Maloney abstaining, stating she had a potential conflict of interest. Council members Dini Duclos and Honda voted yes to the moratorium, while Mark Koppang, Martin Moore, Lydia Assefa-Dawson and Deputy Mayor Jeanne Burbidge voted no. The moratorium vote failed.

It was a significant defeat for Ferrell and his staff as they orchestrated the ploy in an effort to extricate Ferrell from a high-profile political mess with an election just a few months away. At 4-2, it appears that Ferrell may never have had the majority he needed to call the meeting. While it is politics, the ploy didn’t have a transparent open government feel to it, quite the opposite. In fact, the Mirror, as the paper of record, wasn’t even notified of the meeting, although staff found out and were in attendance. Ferrell will regain some support among the neighborhood for his effort but will lose significant negotiating leverage with IRG.

IRG is the big winner in this little melodrama as it has no reason to cooperate, above a minimal level, with the city. With this ploy as IRG’s opening argument, any further actions by the city that IRG dislikes will become additional allegations in any lawsuit. The one positive for Ferrell is that City Hall’s unpredictability, combined with formidable neighborhood opposition, may encourage IRG in the short term to recruit business partners more suited to the property. At least until after the next election.

The neighborhood opposition is disappointed but is actually in a slightly better position now than before, as the fish warehouse is gone, and opponents have shown they have the energy and resources to fight another battle if needed. Candidates for city office next year will seek their support. The four who voted against the moratorium will win some political support by blaming the mayor’s rush to judgment and claiming they were protecting taxpayers’ money in what would likely have been an expensive and possibly losing legal effort. It may hurt them, however, with other voters who believe the city had mishandled and lost control of a valuable land asset from the beginning and saw the moratorium as a last-chance vote. Only Moore and Ferrell face the voters next year, however, as Burbidge is not likely to run, and Maloney has resigned from the council as of the end of the year. Ferrell and the now-departed Wilson will likely get the majority of the blame for the situation.

The relationships among the city’s elected officials will be strained by the outcome, as Ferrell will feel undercut and misled by some council members. Council members will be angry at having to take the tough vote.

There is also the question of Maloney’s abstention due to a potential conflict of interest. She was expected to be a yes vote and had not disclosed the conflict previously, although some remember a vague reference. She not only participated in the executive session but voted in favor of the procedural motion prior to abstaining on the moratorium vote. Several questions are now circulating about her actions. Why was she allowed to remain in the executive session and participate in the discussion if she was planning to abstain? It seems unlikely her conflict could have been discussed in the executive session, or city legal staff would probably have suggested she leave the session. There appears to have been some miscommunication between her and Ferrell over whether she should have voted on the procedural motion, although her question should have been directed to the city attorney, not Ferrell. If she was going to abstain on the main motion due to conflict, she probably should have abstained from the procedural motion as well.

Maloney will leave the council at the end of the year to devote more time to her job representing some aviation interests in Olympia. Speculation, though unconfirmed, is that one of the members of her association could be interested in working with IRG on the Weyerhaeuser property.

Maloney has declined to disclose what the specific conflict is and says she talked to both city attorneys about the potential conflict. She says she was given the language to use in her abstention by Ryan Call, one of the attorneys. The city legal department declined to comment on any of the questions, thus continuing the speculation.

Maloney’s actions remain under question because some city watchers believe, despite her resignation from the council, she is still considering challenging Ferrell for mayor next year. When asked directly about running for mayor, she gave a vague response that left the question unanswered.

This was an embarrassing episode for the city. The moratorium on apartments, combined with recent tax and fee increases on business, followed by the attempted moratorium on the Weyerhaeuser land, may negatively affect economic-development efforts in the city. It certainly undermines the “Federal Way is open for business” theme the city has tried to promote. Lastly, politics remain a complicated, fluid business and not the simple endeavor that some think it is.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is the former mayor of Auburn. He can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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