The recent revolving door at City Hall again highlighted the need for a more professional approach to hiring.
When the City Council transitioned the voters’ direction to a strong mayor form of government, they took a page from Renton, Kent and Auburn and established a position for a professional city administrator to manage the daily complexities of city government. Neither former Mayor Skip Priest nor current Mayor Jim Ferrell had significant executive level experience in government. The position would cost about $150,000 per year.
The current council has also raised that topic and expressed support for adding money in the budget to accomplish that goal.
New Mayor Ferrell hired former Police Chief Brian Wilson as his second in command with a title of chief of staff, but insiders say the authority level was never clear. After Wilson’s involuntary departure from the city, Ferrell hired Yarden Weidenfeld, a friend from his days in the King County Prosecutors Office, as a senior policy advisor who joined long-time Ferrell friend Steve McNey in the mayor’s office.
Weidenfeld was an odd choice as he no background in city government management or policy, and may not have been a good fit. McNey, who helped Ferrell get elected and handled the politics, also departed and has been replaced by a communications coordinator.
During the last few months, Ferrell toyed with the notion of a city administrator, and even discussed such a position with a potential candidate who was already at that level in the city world, who told Ferrell they had no interest in a step down and a pay cut.
Ferrell decided to fill the $118,000 senior policy advisor position rather than the administrator.
The next phase of the hiring process is where the need for clarity and senior level experience was badly needed.
The candidate, while possessing skills Ferrell desperately needed, had done some part-time work for Industrial Realty Group (IRG), the purchasers of the old Weyerhaeuser site, in convening groups of local people to build support.
But Ferrell did not seriously consider the implications or unintended consequences of how that hiring might look to the community or to the Save Weyerhaeuser Campus (SWC) group, as IRG was in the permit process and SWC had appealed one of the city’s decisions regarding the IRG property.
Ferrell underestimated the potential community and SWC reaction, even though it could give the appearance of the developer having an inside advantage. Ferrell figured he would worry about that if the hire was made.
But that is too late.
This position would be the mayor’s key advisor on all different types of policies affecting city government, and the Weyerhaeuser purchase may be the most controversial land-use issue in the city’s history. Now would be the time for Ferrell to have a serious talk with the candidate he encouraged, followed by the city attorney and the Planning director about what the job would be, the level of title and salary negotiations possible, and most important what protocols to put in place to avoid appearance problems.
If Ferrell was not flexible on the title and money or the appearance problems were too great, then the candidate should not be encouraged further or participate in an interview process that likely would become public and expose the candidate and Ferrell regarding community trust to a potentially difficult situation. Ferrell did not take those steps and contacted the candidate and encouraged the submittal of a resume for the senior policy position. While hesitant, the recruitment contact suggested to the candidate that some negotiation for current or future considerations might be possible.
Insiders say it was the candidate who raised the appearance concern not Ferrell, though Ferrell denies that. With Ferrell’s encouragement, the candidate did apply, though predictably the money and title were a problem.
After saying how transparent he was in a taxpayer paid ad the week before, I was surprised Ferrell stonewalled through his communications person about discussing the situation with me until my third request, even though several people inside and outside of City Hall knew what was going on and Ferrell knew I had met the candidate.
Ferrell provided some of the details in this column but on the key point said: “I will never give up operational control of city government,” which Ferrell viewed as what the candidate would want in the long run, and should have resulted in Ferrell not encouraging the resume, because of the difficult position it put the candidate in and the appearance questions it raised.
Nobody did anything wrong in this behind-the-scenes drama, but that also demonstrates Ferrell’s inexperience in senior level hiring, insensitivity to the implications for him, IRG, SWC, the candidate and how the strong mayor and city administrator jobs would work together.
Ultimately, Ferrell did not hire the candidate and offered the job to another person who turned it down. Ferrell then promoted senior intern Bill Vadino to a vaguely-worded job description as policy advisor at $60,000. In today’s challenging government world, good human resource practices are essential and proper screening and candidate vetting are required.
Beyond the amateur nature of the process, the candidate was skilled and could have been an asset to the city and helped guide Ferrell on how to handle situations he has not encountered before, such as this. But Ferrell was once again stubborn and actually moved farther away from the help he actually needed.
And maybe everyone else from the candidate to IRG and SWC dodged a bullet.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.