One of the pieces of advice I gave Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, when he was a brand new mayor and sought my opinion, was “don’t do dumb things.”
Despite that pearl of wisdom, the mayor’s office just can’t seem to grasp the concept. Logic says if you do something dumb, then stop doing it. However, Ferrell’s style seems to be: if you do something dumb, deny it, then try and make it worse.
Several weeks ago, the Mirror printed a front page story that cast considerable doubt on whether the city of Federal Way was following the law regarding a new court ruling from Boise, Idaho, on how the homeless should be treated according to the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Ferrell’s office denied the Mirror staff, and my request, for more information on how protocols were being implemented to ensure compliance. Ferrell said they had reviewed the case and were fine and would not answer further questions, nor provide any additional detail on the specifics of how the law would be interpreted. Bad decision.
This new ruling was front page news in two regional newspapers and of significant importance to all the cities and towns in the state. Ferrell stonewalled us and the public. Separately, we both took him to task for his continuing lack of transparency. I cited examples covering several years. Mirror staff even printed some of the questions the public was asking us.
After a discussion with Ferrell, and his again denying our request to meet with the city attorney, Ferrell agreed to let us meet with the deputy police chief and another officer to get our questions on the Boise case answered. His communications coordinator even encouraged us to hold off on other questions that had come up and ask them during the meeting with the deputy chief. Progress? Yes? No.
Two days before the meeting, Ferrell canceled the meeting without discussing it with us, saying they were not going to talk about the Boise case anymore. As readers can appreciate, each denial simply raises more questions of “why not” and contributes to making the situation worse.
Ferrell has said he is afraid of being “the poster child for the next homeless lawsuit.” I understand his concern. But that should not be a problem if they are telling the truth, and the Mirror publishing their protocols might actually help him. So why not tell us what the protocols are? Why work this hard to not give the public answers? Ferrell says they are in compliance. However, the new requirements are pretty precise about what steps the city is to follow and it would be easy to write a protocol.
But there are enough city documents we have read that raise questions. The Mirror’s story uncovered enough inconsistencies to justify more detailed questioning. If they are in compliance, then there is nothing to worry about. But the continued stonewalling, along with Ferrell’s policy of “no tolerance” of homeless encampments, does make me wonder if the city is in a legal gray area they don’t want to discuss or defend.
Transparency was bad, it was questioned, and then Ferrell called a meeting to answer the questions, and then canceled the meeting without answering the questions. The problem went from bad to worse. What are your thoughts when your government won’t answer simple questions on a major topic of community interest? The requirements for the city under the Boise case seem very straightforward.
Ferrell says he thinks that we have already decided what the story is. The Mirror staff and I are looking at the same issue from different angles. We both have a lot of unanswered questions, but the story lacks the most crucial element — an ending!
We had hoped the city would provide the ending. They are either complying, or not, or are in a questionable legal area. Which is it?
Then when I asked to get the Mirror and I some training on the new document retrieval system for public disclosure, it was denied. The city clerk’s office has plenty to do, so I offered to pay for her staff’s time, including overtime, out of my own pocket because I expect the Mirror staff and I to be frequent users. Unfortunately requesting documents under public disclosure has become a necessary way get information, and we want to use the system correctly.
That was also denied. Transparency? Fortunately I had copied the city clerk on my request. She stepped forward and volunteered to help. She averted another effort to make the problem worse. I got the training, which even my friends will tell you was needed. And the city clerk will also help Mirror staff if they need it.
What questions come to mind when your elected mayor and his communications staff won’t provide answers to legal questions that other cities answer without difficulty? Mine is: Why?
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.