Last week’s council meeting turned out to be one of the most contentious meetings in the last decade as city leaders’ passionate political views and questionable behavior overwhelmed the usually staid and dignified council chambers.
The topic was council bill No. 672, which would ban recreational marijuana-related businesses. Since the legislation was supported on a 5-2 vote at first reading, it was expected to pass with the same margin.
To supporters of the shops and the 53 percent of voters who supported legalization of marijuana, it was shaping up as a loss. Some anticipated the council vote for the ban would be followed by the city’s and Mayor Jim Ferrell’s first veto. Since five votes are needed to override the mayor’s veto, some also expected the following council meeting would yield the first veto override in city history. Pot supporters believed the council majority was using the regulatory system as a way to overturn the voters will.
But, with the embarrassing prospect of the council overriding his veto, Ferrell proposed substitute bill No. 678, which would continue the current moratorium on marijuana-related businesses but also call for a public vote. Similar legislation was being discussed in Olympia providing the opening for a compromise. Ferrell’s maneuver held a possible reversal of fortune for the mayor as he appeared to be on the verge of turning a potential 5-2 loss and override, into a potential win by putting the issue back to an electorate who had already demonstrated its support for marijuana.
Council members Kelly Maloney, Bob Celski, Jeanne Burbidge, Martin Moore and Lydia Assefa-Dawson already voted in opposition to the pot shops and Maloney and Moore reasoned that the public might vote differently now than they had in the past. It would be politically awkward for them to oppose a public vote that would test their theory.
Ferrell, a Republican-turned-Democrat, has been under some political pressure by both Democrats, and marijuana supporters, to show stronger leadership on the issue after he gave a “Key to the City” to Teri Hickel, a Republican running for the Legislature.
Ferrell’s proposal included a November public vote, as opposed to putting it on the August ballot. This will likely result in more people voting on the issue as turnout is higher in general elections than in primary elections. However, Ferrell probably calculated that it would also bring more Democratic votes out. That would help appointed state Rep. Carol Gregory, D-Federal Way, in her battle with Hickel, and earn Ferrell some points with Democrats, his new political base.
Although the substitute motion was floated conceptually for a few days, the maneuver exposed some serious partisan fissures in the ranks of our elected officials as Republicans Maloney, Celski and Moore recognized the motion’s political consequences to Hickel. Maloney then led the fight to substitute the August primary for the general election.
It would be a smaller set of voters and many believe Republicans are more likely to vote in a primary than Democrats. It was at this point that long-held council procedure and tempers interceded to provide debate that was not the city’s finest hour of statesmanship.
Despite the change in the form of government, the mayor and council have continued the practice of the mayor participating equally in the council’s debate on policy matters, which is a holdover from the council-manager form of government. Previously, the mayor was a member of the council and entitled to manage the meeting, participate in debate and cast a vote.
In the strong mayor form of government, the mayor is a separately elected official with only limited ability to speak and no vote. Ferrell and Mayor Skip Priest before him, have been very active participants in the debate. Both mayors should have passed the gavel to the deputy mayor if they wanted to contribute to the discussion, as it is the council’s meeting and mayoral participation should be minimal. The mayor’s role is to impartially manage the discussion ensuring fairness, objectivity and civility.
Most of the debate was a civil dialog on the two competing election date options. But as the debate continued, the tone took a heated turn and in one exchange, Maloney challenged Ferrell in a somewhat direct manner. That Ferrell reacted was unsurprising, but he overreacted and clearly lost his temper. When the theatrics concluded, Maloney’s motion to substitute August for November failed with Burbidge, Dini Duclos, Susan Honda and Asseffa-Dawson voting “no” and Maloney, Moore and Celski voting “yes.” The final motion passed 7-0, placing the issue on the November ballot.
Unfortunately, much of Ferrell’s victory moment was undermined by his own loss of poise and heavy-handed meeting management. Difference of opinion and philosophy is part of our democratic process. But the acrimonious debate also exposed the need for a long overdue change in council procedure. The mayor’s participation in debate should change to be consistent with the new form of government.
This mayor and council have many different values and personalities. Despite their differences and bruised relationships, they have worked well together in the past and shouldn’t let this issue become a permanent wedge in undermining their professional responsibilities.
Ferrell got his needed political win, but it came at a price. It’s now his job to set the example and lead. He should, and probably already has, reached out to the council to change procedures and smooth out working relationships.
The council needs to do their part as well and let go of any leftover feelings. This controversy didn’t have to happen. In November, the council should follow the public’s advice, which ever way it goes.
Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: firstname.lastname@example.org.