Jim Ferrell has a chance to be a really good mayor, maybe even better than good. But he appears headed toward the same mistakes for which he criticized his predecessor Mayor Skip Priest.
Governing is about more than bricks and mortar, or buildings, parks, streets or even feel good staged rallies. Although those can be important, governing is about the tone you set with the people you govern. It’s how people are made to feel.
To some, City Hall has the same feeling as junior high, with an “in” crowd and an “out” crowd. People who raise questions, or appear to be threats, soon become “outs.” They are subject to public attacks and being belittled. Interestingly, since Ferrell was the candidate of change, the current “in” crowd he has aligned with is the same as when Priest was mayor. Which has raised the many-sided question in the community: “Has City Hall captured Jim Ferrell?”
It has only been a few years since the voters changed our form of government, and change has been occurring in ways that range from acceptable and appreciated, to concern and, in some cases, outright alarm. We have gained a faster moving government that can put ideas into practice quickly, but transparency and our freedom to question our government or to even have an opinion different from those in power at City Hall has been undermined.
A strong mayor form of government is inherently more political than council-manager. Staff loyalties are usually to the person who appointed them. Communications with the public and the media are now handled by a political appointee.
Unsurprisingly, the important information delivered to the public sometimes gets clouded while trying to make the mayor and city “look good,” especially when the topic might be controversial. That’s called “spin control” and it is being used more frequently to try and manage, or in some cases suppress dissenting citizens, the media and sway public opinion.
All public officials, including mayors, want to “manage” the media’s message to the public because they want to be liked and re-elected. City Hall doesn’t want the public to read about police cars crashing into homes, or shootings, police brutality, gangs, or hear questions about priorities regarding the need for the Performing Arts and Conference Center versus a homeless shelter, or cost overruns of the downtown park or a police widow who feels she was mistreated by city government.
City Hall calls it “negative news” and blames the messenger, be it the media whose job is to inform the public, or citizens who simply might want to tell elected officials their opinion. In the guise of wanting more “positive” news stories, City Hall wants its citizens to actually get less real news unless it’s polished to make City Hall look better.
Ferrell was critical of Priest for even having a communications manager position, then using it as a shield to keep the media and public at a distance while exercising spin control to try and make everything sound better than it may have been behind the scenes. Part of the reason Priest had political problems is that his staff bought into, or encouraged that notion and by doing so, did not serve his or the city’s interests as well as they should have. Is history repeating itself?
In Ferrell’s campaign he sounded a theme of “transparency,” and after observing him on the political stage for almost a decade I think his instinct does lean to openness. Over his staff’s objections, Ferrell did allow me to interview two department directors without the chief of staff or communications manager present, which is the standard policy for any interviews with the media. It is a carryover policy that is inconsistent with transparency. I also note that two recent directorship interviews included opportunities for the public to meet the candidates. That is positive, but minimal.
Overall, transparency has grown worse, not better and the city’s attempts to control and even intimidate some citizens and the media have become more direct and bold, particularly in the last several months.
It is fairly common for candidates to use supporters as political surrogates, masquerading as impartial citizens, to write letters to the editor or post comments on the Federal Way Mirror website defending the mayor or attacking people who have raised questions about his actions. But the practice didn’t stop when the election did, and has been elevated beyond discourse on city policy to personal attacks.
Surrogate writers have launched attacks on the Mirror’s editor, its staff, Federal Way citizens, the Chamber and its CEO, as well as legislative candidate Martin Moore. Moore already had plenty of people commenting on his candidacy. For Ferrell’s surrogates to pile on suggests some fear in the Ferrell camp that Moore might be a future candidate against Ferrell and they want to knock him out now.
Ferrell’s supporters are entitled to their opinion just as all citizens are, but their actions are either directed, orchestrated or have become a decade-long habit with historical candidate approval. Some of the comments have become so uncivil, the Mirror found it necessary to remove several due to their caustic and personal nature. And those comments are not helping Ferrell; in fact, they reflect poorly on him.
The city has made citizens who raised questions about the Performing Arts and Conference Center feel belittled and ostracized, even though Ferrell’s years-long opposition helped create the very doubt expressed by community members. Next week: Did city staff go too far in responding to citizen opinion?
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: firstname.lastname@example.org.