I believe Jim Ferrell wants to be a good mayor, but he is dividing our community with his behavior.
In the last six years we have seen Ferrell’s temper, impulsiveness and willingness to attack anyone who dares to have a different opinion of him or his performance than he does. But his latest attack on the school district and Superintendent Tammy Campbell has further eroded confidence in him and his ability to work constructively with institutions we depend on for community success.
Campbell’s sin? She simply answered a question from a business person about the city permit system and school construction delays at a quarterly meeting between the Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce and the city. She also answered a similiar question from then-Rep. Kristine Reeves at a meeting with legislators.
Ferrell didn’t like her answer because there were reporters in the room. Rather than reach out to Campbell and try and avoid an unconstructive public dispute, Ferrell chose to go on the offensive and initiate contact with the media for the sole purpose of laying all the blame for lost time and higher costs of the school construction projects on the school district. He made accusations and belittled district employees in a bullying manner.
It was the equivalent of responding to Campbell’s BB gun comment with a cannon.
Ferrell’s combative style of deny any responsibility and attack, had the predictable outcome as it forced Campbell to respond and defend her staff and point out shortcomings in the city permit process, which she did at a recent council meeting. This episode did not have to happen, and if this were the only time Ferrell has let his need to shift responsibility by blaming others, it would just be forgotten.
But it has become part of a pattern of behavior, and is dividing the community in such a negative manner Ferrell needs to rethink his entire style if he hopes to be an effective leader.
The public doesn’t really know who is right or wrong, but they do know the school construction delay isn’t entirely the district’s fault as Ferrell says. The city’s permit system is an ongoing source of frustration for many trying to develop in Federal Way. And if the city’s biggest employer has this much difficulty, imagine what smaller businesses must face.
But even though Ferrell says the city has a great permit system and the city is always looking to improve, it isn’t believable as anyone who is critical or has a different opinion could become a target. Chamber CEO, Becca Martin, who routinely fields complaints about the permit system, tried to capture a moment in time with their study, which suggested that some developers were confronted with the same problems as the school district. Ferrell ignored the information and attacked the report as “statistically insignificant,” even though it was only intended as a sample, and the chamber has brought concerns to the city’s attention on other projects. Many local business leaders are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. Which, as the school district and others can attest, appears to be a justifiable concern.
It was only a few weeks ago that two of our legislators, Reeves and Sen. Claire Wilson, wanted accountability from Ferrell about taking state money for the Federal Way Performing Arts and Event Center kitchen, but not implementing the culinary program, which was the only reason legislators supported the kitchen. Ferrell appeared to blame the legislators.
Before that there was the state money our legislators provided to help homeless “in Federal Way” as Ferrell requested. But he made a deal to send the money and homeless to Burien, which is a different legislative district. Ferrell again blamed the legislators.
Though it was out of the glare of the media, the council’s selection of Susan Honda as deputy mayor had a secondary meaning. At least four of the seven votes for Honda were a pushback against Ferrell for trying to dominate the council, rather than understanding their independent oversight role.
And remember the dust-up between Ferrell and FUSION? That was part of the undercurrent of homeless being sent to Burien. The city never contacted FUSION regarding possible interest in emergency sheltering of the homeless “in Federal Way,” even though two of their leaders, Peggy LaPorte and Byron Hiller, had met previously with Ferrell regarding their interest in the Light of Christ property for that use.
However, in a Mirror interview, Ferrell claimed he had no prior knowledge of FUSION being interested in emergency housing, and he attacked the organization for coming in late to the process, even though they had met with him, and city staff admitted they never contacted FUSION to determine their interest. Of concern is that Ferrell rarely seems to understand others point of view, nor agree on the historical facts.
Many will remember the battle with Centerstage. Some of their supporters believe the city cut their funding in retaliation for other cuts they opposed.
Ferrell would prefer to have his own newspaper rather than an independent one, and uses taxpayer-provided city resources such as his Mayor’s Memo and Mayor’s Minute, to present his opinion as fact.
Recently during a “virtual town hall” event on Facebook, Ferrell acknowledged the public doesn’t want finger-pointing, then proceeded to point fingers by attacking the school district, the chamber and express frustration with state legislators over the PAEC culinary project. Discrediting everyone else appears to be his political self-preservation strategy. Protecting and promoting himself appears to be his priority.
Behind the scenes, he and his taxpayer paid communications person frequently and aggressively try to influence what appears in the paper. Ferrell doesn’t like anything that might reflect badly on him, including the police report, as it may contain murders and robberies, which undermines his “crime is down” position. But getting the public the news is the Mirror’s job. At one time he appeared to threaten the Mirror’s status as the paper of record, although he later said he didn’t mean it.
The mayor of any city has the biggest megaphone, or bully pulpit, to rally the different community institutions as true partners by finding consensus and cooperation among them, which is crucial to our future success. But, if nonprofits like FUSION who care for those in need, or Centerstage who provides local culture, our state legislators who can help with state money, the business community that provides jobs and the chamber who can be a partner in economic development and effective feedback, the school district that builds our schools to educate our children, the council, and the newspaper have been the subject of Ferrell’s attacks — it is worth raising for discussion.
No one should face the “hostility” from the mayor’s office the superintendent says she faced and yet she is not alone. Legislators shouldn’t have questions about whether they can trust Ferrell to do what he says he will with state money, and no one should fear retaliation for having a different opinion on the city’s performance. Will he listen? As Joe McCarthy adviser Roy Cohn once said: “If a man says something aggressively enough or loud enough he can make it true.”
I hope Ferrell will change his style, because that many community leaders can’t be wrong, and the common denominator is Ferrell. For the betterment of Federal Way he needs to learn how to work with others, and he needs someone around him who can talk him out of acting before he thinks. But I fear he is more likely to tell his taxpayer-funded communications sidekick to crank up the taxpayer-funded Mayor’s Memo or letter to the editor to try and say it’s all not true.
Ferrell can’t control everything in town, although he tries, but he can control how he reacts to others and situations. Trust in each other is what binds a community together, and that trust has been shaken and is in need of repair. Ferrell’s better self needs to emerge. This column is an opinion — and that’s mine.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact email@example.com.