Transparency at City Hall? You be the judge | Bob Roegner

This is the second of a two-part column suggesting that by not holding public meetings or confirmation hearings where the public could offer comment, the city was not as transparent as it could have been with the appointment of two directors in a management reorganization last January. Since information was difficult to obtain, much of this column is speculation after reviewing city documents over several weeks.

Also, the city communications manager contacted The Mirror last week and has provided additional insight. He noted a couple of areas that were not correct in the first column. The city says that outsiders were considered prior to the appointment of Patrick Doherty to head the new consolidated community-economic development department and that finance is not part of Bryant Enge’s new portfolio as the new director of administrative services.The finance department reports directly to the mayor. We appreciate his effort, as we always want to make sure our facts are correct.

However, that clarification, while helpful, does not change the basic theme of the column.

In March, I was finally able to reconstruct what probably happened.

Back in 2010, when the Federal Way City Council was approving ordinances to change from the council-manager form of government to the mayor-council format, they likely overstepped their boundaries and gave all the department directors two-year contracts for  2010-2011. Some council members didn’t want them to leave during the transition. Others were afraid that Jim Ferrell might be elected mayor. He was the only announced candidate at the time. The new mayor would have the power to fire directors and hire their own management team. The council wanted to tie his hands his first year in office and protect people they liked.

In the wonderful world of unintended consequences, they tied Skip Priest’s hands instead. And maybe their own. Then in October 2010, planning director Greg Fewins announced he was retiring. The city started the process to fill his position and said finalists would be known by the end of December and interviewed Jan. 20-21, 2011.

However, at the Jan. 4 city council meeting, Mayor Priest announced several new appointments that were “effective immediately,” including Doherty and Enge.

I started asking about confirmation hearings, since both would be taking over new and significantly different responsibilities. The city attorney said that “since they are not new directors and are known to the council … confirmation wouldn’t apply to them,” even though the council procedures call for them.

Was the city attorney’s opinion as odd as it sounded, or was she just reflecting what the council wanted? After talking with council members and reviewing city documents, I concluded that the council probably never intended to include the public in this process. I suspect that the discussions about the appointments were all done outside the public view in individual meetings with the mayor and council members and a decision was reached. But we don’t really know what happened in those meetings because we weren’t there.

As the mayor, Priest could have challenged those contracts as they probably became invalid as soon as he took the oath of office. The law says the mayor is “in charge of all departments and employees.” Most strong mayors with a four-year term would have pursued the issue with the council.

The council was making a political statement by substituting its judgment for the mayor’s on who should be on his management team.

But Priest has a three-year term and the issue could have gotten messy. He likely didn’t want to take the risk of getting bogged down in personnel matters. But he also wanted to get along with the council.

By leaving the contracts in place, he does get time to evaluate the directors. The council was acting like the council-manager form of government still existed. So he took the path of least resistance.

But would he have made the same decisions if the contracts hadn’t been put in place? We may not know until January. And was this the time for caution, or was now the time to put his stamp on city government?

Much was made of the money the city saved with the reorganization. But if the mayor had been free to truly choose his own management team, could the city have saved more?

At the Jan. 18 council meeting, one week after I raised the questions with the city attorney, there was an ordinance approving the reorganization of the departmental structure. It continued to reflect the council’s prerogative to confirm appointees.

You would have had to look deeply into the agenda and staff report to find the reference to Doherty and Enge. Most people would not have understood what was going on, let alone how to interject any questions.

There was no public hearing listed and no discussion about their qualifications for the positions. There was no opportunity for public questions, and no public comment from Doherty and Enge about their goals for the new departments. Even if a citizen had figured it out and wanted to say something, the mayor had already announced two weeks prior that the appointments were “effective immediately.”

The ordinance to reorganize was both introduced and enacted the same night. Usually, enactment would follow at the next council meeting.

I also want to be clear about one thing. This isn’t about Doherty and Enge. They are in the middle trying to do a good job, and probably are. This is about transparency, and how our elected leaders are implementing a new form of government.

The public never knew what was going on. We never got included. The council was thinking like political insiders, not like public representatives. And they were so intent on that goal, they didn’t even go through the motions of a public process.

Did transparency have a bad day? You be the judge.