This is an important year for our community and how we define ourselves. Four seats on the Federal Way City Council are up for election. What issues do you care about? Is it possible for us to work together or have we followed the national trend, and are so polarized there is no middle ground?
The biggest problem confronting our city remains the same as it has for several years — which path shall we choose for our homeless? Criminalization or humanization? The politics around the issue are very polarized.
Mayor Jim Ferrell’s current city policy is, if the homeless are on either public or private property they are trespassing and committing a crime. The criminalization of the homeless includes a special police unit that keeps them moving to new places as it clears out their encampment. The path of humanization is to find them housing.
But part of our residents ask, if housing, where and at what cost? So far Ferrell has not been willing to spend any general fund money on solving the problem. The more logical answer is let them stay on public property and provide tiny houses or tents and sleeping bags, to match community efforts to provide food at churches and the Day Center. Then make a commitment to provide general fund money to build a shelter, or contribute to the cost of operating one.
This option is more realistic now that FUSION, working with King County and the state, may be able to acquire a building. Ferrell only wants to push the burden to the state or use block grant money. There is not enough money from those two sources to actually make a difference.
But his actions may reflect the political difficulty elected officials face. Even though a recent Mirror poll had low participation, it showed two-thirds of those responding were opposed to spending general fund money on the homeless. And in reading website comments, it is clear that many not only don’t share the “brothers keeper “ ideal, they actually feel some anger toward the homeless that is occasionally couched with inaccurate information.
Their fears and conclusions might have been tempered had Ferrell allowed the homeless committee to meet in public and taken to heart the need for public education rather than rely on a report that few of our residents have actually read. The council challenged Ferrell during the budget process wanting a higher priority for the homeless, and recently split with him and took control of the $100,000 from the state. They designated most of it to help FUSION through the planning process, along with some for emergency hotel vouchers. Which path is the right one for council candidates to choose?
Then there is our changing diversity. It reflects our appreciation for different cultures, foods, language and traditions. But we still have not grasped the more substantive differences of experiences that people of color face that whites do not, and don’t understand.
It was most obvious in the debate last year over whether or not we needed a police oversight board to review internal findings in cases of “use of force.” The City Council appears split on the issue, as three council members, and residents of color stated that people of color frequently have a different interaction with police than whites.
Ferrell, the police chief and the police Guild, and others do not want an oversight board, but many do. Or are we out of touch with the public who voted in favor of I-940, which contained many of the concepts that our council debate referenced? Is it time for a more serious debate? We will be forced into the debate by events eventually, maybe we should start now?
Two other major issues are economic development and housing. The Growth Management Act called for us to encourage greater density in cities that would then be supported by mass transit with a goal of reducing cars and pollution, while saving rural areas from development and preserving our environment.
Federal Way has done that. But you might recall that when two large multi-family developments were built, one within walking distance of our future train station, many people were angry as they didn’t want more apartments for fear of lower property values and additional taxes for schools and other infrastructure.
A more subtle fear was that the dwellings might be occupied by poor people. Ferrell and the council passed two six month moratoriums to slow development and review codes. Now we have Microsoft pushing cities to reduce their police powers in planning to cut development costs and increase affordable housing. The business community has complained about time and the cost-consuming nature of the permit process for years. The debate will likely lead us back to the same political discourse, and another choice to make.
The city’s economic development efforts are mixed. According to the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce information only a small fraction of our population can both live and work here. Too many of our jobs are in the service category, which don’t typically provide family wage jobs. The result is many of our residents work in another city and our day time population comes to work here from another city. Is that what we see in our future?
These are not easy choices and they don’t have easy answers. The candidates need to study these thorny issues and give us the most thoughtful answers they can.
And voters, do your homework as well, make sure the candidates are prepared when they land on your doorstep. The choices we make in the city elections this year and 2021 will have a lasting impact on what kind of a community we will be in the future.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.