New Mayor Skip Priest and the Federal Way City Council will be under the big microscope of public observation the next few months as everyone watches to see how City Hall changes under the new strong mayor system.
During the recently completed mayoral campaign, most of the city council members stayed publicly neutral. However, the behind-the-scenes perception was that most favored Priest. Some thought the council favored Priest by a 5-2 margin, others felt it was 4-3. But how the new relationship develops will go a long way in determining how City Hall progresses during the next year. Four members of the City Council are up for re-election, and that may have an affect as well.
In the immediate future, there will be a honeymoon period where everyone will work hard to get along, particularly in public settings. But the council’s role will change significantly.
The council members, while sometimes disagreeing on policy matters, were always protective of the city management and staff. They kept any performance concerns behind the scenes as they felt a bond with the employees. But now those employees report to the mayor. The city staff role was to make a recommendation to the council, but provide options. They may or may not still do that. But in a strong mayor form of government, the mayor is the city leader. The mayor decides where he wants the city to go, and the staff’s role is to advance the mayor’s agenda. That changes the council’s role from “teaming” with the staff to one of providing “checks and balances” on the mayor’s administration.
Usually, common ground is found, but this is a council that may find that adjustment awkward. Even the simple act of setting the agenda for council meetings will be different as the council is the controlling body.
The biggest challenge for Priest will be ensuring the new strong mayor system is implemented. How he approaches that task will be crucial. Priest is by nature low-key and tries to work toward inclusion and consensus. He also must lead, and that is where each side will face a challenge. So far, Priest has been cautious in his approach to the council and is trying to establish a good working environment without stepping on any toes. He declined to recommend any changes to the budget and said he would come back after the first of the year with any changes. But as an illustration of how City Hall has changed, even that drew a split reaction from council members.
In preparing for the changeover, the council established many rules that may now be up for debate. The council gave all the department heads two-year contracts that have one year remaining. While probably not legally binding on Priest, he could find himself in a public
relations dilemma should he want to make changes and set up his own team earlier. Priest only has a three-year term, and if he waits a full year to get his team in place, he only has one more year to get things done before the election cycle starts again.
Also, the council added another hurdle for the new mayor. Under the law, as a part of its oversight role, the council is able to decide which city staff positions require its confirmation. Traditionally, these are only heads of major departments that are directly responsible for city policy. The council did include that requirement, but also went further by including personal staff advisors in the mayor’s office — such as economic development, communications and government affairs, financial services and a position to assist the council. Priest could ask that these positions be exempt from council confirmation.
Additionally, the council retained the prerogative of appointing citizens to boards and commissions. This is usually a mayoral responsibility with confirmation by the council. Will Priest ask for this change? There is likely to be some friction, and that may actually be healthy, as it will help define roles. The council will still set policy. But now the council has a policy partner, not an employee, and that partner will have independent powers — including the authority to veto some council actions.
All Federal Way’s elected officials are good people trying to do a good job. But none of them have ever been in this type of situation before, and well intended as they may be, it will be a challenge to work through the process of establishing a new form of government.
Happy holidays and thanks for reading.