Q&A: Power of a strong mayor | Bob Roegner

My recent two-part column about the change in Federal Way’s form of government resulted in several questions from readers. Under the theory that others might have the same questions, I will share them with you.

My recent two-part column about the change in Federal Way’s form of government resulted in several questions from readers. Under the theory that others might have the same questions, I will share them with you.

Q. In the council-manager form we voted out, the council had most of the power. Who has it now? Is it split?

A. The law contemplates a 50-50 sharing of the power. The council is the legislative authority and the mayor heads the administration. However, in reality, most of the power shifts to the mayor. He is a policy partner with the council on legislative matters and is the head of government. He has independent power, while the council can only act as a group. If the mayor doesn’t support something proposed by one of his staff, it probably won’t even get to the council. That’s not a comment on Federal Way; that is how it is supposed to work. It’s the mayor’s administration, and he is expected to lead. Even something proposed by a council member will still go to the administration for review and a recommendation from the mayor back to the council.

Q. You brought up confirmation by the council. Who does the city staff work for and why does the council get a say?

A. All city staff members work for the mayor. Many, except those covered by a collective bargaining agreement, serve at the “pleasure of the mayor.” That is a term of art, not a comment about whether anyone is actually having a good time. It means the mayor has the authority to hire or fire most city staff without interference from the city council. The city council has the legal authority to designate certain positions to be confirmed (agreed to) by them. Usually, these are positions like department directors or staff with a significant public policy impact. The mayor has authority to hire, but the council has to agree that the person is qualified.

Q. Can the council reject a mayor’s appointment?

A. If the position is designated, then yes, but it is rare. But council members aren’t supposed to say no just because they wanted someone else. They are not supposed to substitute their judgment for the mayor’s without a good reason. The law is intended to provide a check and balance on the mayor to keep him from hiring unqualified friends and to avoid patronage. It isn’t designed to just give the council political leverage, although some councils have been known to use it for that. If the council were to say no to one of his appointees, then the mayor would have to start over and bring back another name. Or, if the mayor wanted to play hardball, he could appoint the person anyway in an “acting” capacity. Acting positions are not subject to council approval, but are intended for emergencies or on a temporary basis. If that occurred, then things would get very political, very fast.

Q. What if the mayor wanted to hire friends in positions that the council doesn’t confirm?

A. For certain positions, the mayor could do it. But if the friends were unqualified and it started to look like patronage, the council or the press would catch it — and it would cause a pretty significant problem for the mayor. Most mayors are smart enough to avoid the temptation to misuse their authority. Any mayor will have more success if he surrounds himself with professional talent.

Q. Does the council have any staff?

A. No. State law is very clear. All the employees work for the mayor. The mayor may choose to appoint a member of his staff to assist the council in carrying out duties, if he chooses.

But the person still works for the mayor. In most cities, there is someone on the city staff who provides administrative support. Typically it is someone in the city clerk’s office. In Federal Way, the city council does have a council assistant to help with administrative support. In an interesting move, the council made the position confirmable and included the authority to evaluate the person. The council’s goal appeared to be a way to get the person they wanted. It will be interesting to see if Mayor Priest moves to change that. Also, there are some unique circumstances under which the council could hire an outside adviser for a specific purpose. But it’s rare and can be complicated.

Q. How about the city attorney?

A. The city attorney, due to legal and ethical standards, can find herself in positions that other administrative staff don’t encounter. The simple answer is the mayor is the city attorney’s primary client. The mayor hires and fires the city attorney. But the city council is also a client. As a result, and due to the ethical standards that are part of being a lawyer, city attorneys have obligations that can get awkward when the mayor and council have competing interests. All staff are expected to follow the law and act ethically. But to other staff, the mayor’s interest always comes first, even in a disagreement with the council. Staff who get confused about who their boss is don’t tend to last very long in a strong mayor form of government.


Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.