Mirror right: Transparency lacking at City Hall

Ferrell does not like the independent accountability the Mirror provides, though that is their job.

Bob Roegner

Bob Roegner

The homelessness challenge is the biggest issue facing this region and this city.

Why wouldn’t Mayor Jim Ferrell answer the Mirror’s questions about a new legal interpretation on how the homeless are treated? When a public official issues a meaningless statement to avoid the press, it usually means there is something to hide. It was disappointing, though not surprising, Ferrell would then spend $1,500 of taxpayer money on an ad disagreeing with a Mirror editorial critical of his transparency at City Hall, rather than just answer the Mirror’s questions. Ferrell does not like the independent accountability the Mirror provides, though that is their job.

But for he and his staff to mislead the public only proves the Mirror’s point. Worse, Ferrell used the half page publicly paid ad to try and score points with conservatives by describing situations that appear open, but are really “under his control.” He uses every taxpayer paid gimmick available to advertise himself and attack anyone who questions him. In Ferrell’s City Hall, many times transparency and candor are treated as only “words” rather than concepts to keep the public informed.

The editorial was not an “immediate” reaction as Ferrell suggests, but frustration born of months, even years of occasional cooperation, followed by stonewall, or meaningless political spin on issues Ferrell doesn’t like. Homeless is one of them. Ferrell says the Mirror was “simply not accurate” because he met with the Mirror earlier on the homeless. Homelessness has many sides and Ferrell’s meetings with Mirror staff were many months ago on different very hot topics.

Those included Ferrell’s denying an email sent under his name about sending our homeless to Seattle; Ferrell wanting to contract with Mary’s Place to send our homeless to Burien, after saying the money would be spent in Federal Way; the blow up when legislators discovered the truth; FUSION’s efforts to establish a shelter; and most recently an interpretation change in the law that raises questions about city’s compliance, which was front page in the Mirror and a regional newspaper. The Mirror wanted straight answers and got a stone wall from Ferrell, and city attorney. Does it make you wonder why?

No one asked for “unfettered access” as his communications coordinator Tyler Hemstreet states, just answers to questions of significant legal change. Given Ferrell’s “no tolerance” policy of the homeless, questions about legal compliance need to be answered. The Mirror, residents and I all were asking similar questions. We are still waiting for the answers. His statement in his paid ad seemed to suggest that since the city isn’t being sued, everything is OK. The homeless don’t have much money to spend on lawsuits. Also, the mayor’s office didn’t seem to know the answers to simple questions they should know. Such as how many homeless people are there, other than hand them a list of services most can’t get to, what does the city do to link those in need with the services that can help them? How much are you spending on cleaning up encampments?

Legal compliance based on the Boise case is far more nuanced than Ferrell lets on, and needed clarification. Talking to the city attorney about interpretations for police to follow would have been helpful. But Ferrell wouldn’t allow it.

Ferrell won’t let the media talk directly to any of his department heads, which impedes asking follow-up questions and getting direct answers. An email to Ferrell or a department head is frequently returned by Hemstreet, which is fine for data or general information but unacceptable for a serious discussion of Ferrell’s policies.

Legislators from both parties are always cooperative, as are state and county officials. Other cities usually provide information quickly and accurately. And we can talk to whoever we need to talk to. Federal Way Council members have also been open and cooperative. But Ferrell’s office doesn’t like any news that doesn’t make Ferrell look good, and his staff is frequently aggressive and intrusive when trying to influence a story to Ferrell’s advantage.

Recently I wrote a story about Ferrell’s considering hiring as his second in command a person who had done some part time work for IRG, owners of the Weyerhaeuser property. Hemstreet returned my email to Ferrell with a stone wall. It wasn’t until the third email that Ferrell finally talked about it, and then said it wasn’t a story. It was not only a story, but a potentially explosive story, with Ferrell’s need for revenue and the perception in some quarters that Ferrell might put his thumb on the scale to help IRG. But he didn’t want to talk about it? Even though he didn’t hire the person, the recruitment and interview have raised the suspicions of those who question the impartiality of the permit process in Ferrell’s administration for IRG.

But stonewalling isn’t new for Ferrell. After he announced his Homeless Committee in April 2018, many asked him to make the meetings open to the public so the media could provide some education on the topic to the public. Ferrell said “no” as the chair didn’t want the meetings open. However, a “draft” internal email to me obtained under public disclosure and prepared for Ferrell to sign, said: “I’m sure if you and the Mirror want to sit in that would be alright.” But the final document did not include that sentence, and in a separate document Ferrell’s former advisor Yarden Weidenfeld said Ferrell wanted that sentence deleted and the meetings closed. No mention of the chair or any other reasons, and the public was excluded.

The public was excluded from the meetings of the Performing Arts and Event Center Committee, the most expensive project in city history. Ferrell tried to close Violence Prevention meetings and only relented after the city attorney agreed with the Mirror’s challenge.

In early 2018 I used a number of $30,00-$50,000 obtained years earlier from a city staff person as the range to clean and close each homeless camp. I had used the number several times without disagreement from City Hall. A community leader, and I, had heard the same number quoted by Ferrell in a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce. With 13 encampments, at the time, that would make the overall cost $300,000-$500,000 per year. My thought was for that much money you could buy a building and convert it to a homeless shelter, and start to solve the problem. The mayor’s office accused me of making up the number. I asked on several occasions “if that number is not accurate what is the correct number?” They kept denying that such a number ever existed, as they do not track that type of information.

Then recently I found my habit of getting both the “draft” report and “final” report came in handy. In the draft Homeless Committee report the Parks and Recreation Department estimated they spent $50,000 on staff time per year to clean out homeless camps, but the number was not in the final report. When I asked the mayor’s office “why” they didn’t have a reason, though they didn’t say it was an error. Then I learned that the police department had a team of four officers and a supervisor assigned part-time to keep track of the homeless camps and help close them. Police and city staff estimated that the unit spent 50-60% of their time on homeless camps, not counting the supervisor who also was responsible for another unit. The cost of the unit at that percent according to both city and police staff was approximately $250,000 per year for each of the last nine years. When combined with the Parks number, the $300,000 total fits the low range of what they said was inaccurate, made up, not tracked, and didn’t exist. They were unable, or unwilling, to give me the costs for Public Works or other staff, or for the disposal costs, which would likely boost the total closer to the upper range.

It shouldn’t be this hard to get your city government to tell you the truth on how they spend your money. And the $2.2 million they spent over the last nine years cleaning out camps? The city could have bought the homeless their own neighborhood, or actually provided assistance to help the homeless, rather than spend the money criminalizing them, and used the police officers more wisely.

The truth is they didn’t want me, or you to know because Mayor Ferrell would rather spend money pushing the homeless out of town than find a real solution. At even the low number of $300,000 per year over nine years could have made progress and reduced the homeless population in a positive way. Transparency “a hallmark of his office?” No.

Ferrell’s “I work for you” is a political spin to avoid actually answering questions and the public has a right to know if the city is complying with the law and how they are treating the homeless. Reporters not only ask the questions the public would ask if they had the chance, reporters ask the questions Ferrell doesn’t want to answer. And that’s their job.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.

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