After several months, the Violence Prevention Coalition steering committee presented its work to the city this past week. Commissioned after a series of murders last year, and with a strong membership, the group’s recommendations have been highly anticipated. But the question for many has been whether or not City Hall would treat the work seriously and provide both the political and budget support necessary to move the recommendations from concepts to reality and implement programs that could make a difference in preventing violence in the community.
In government and politics, time and place have meaning, and the first clues weren’t hopeful. Rather than schedule the committee to present its work in the formal setting of a council meeting with the appropriate fanfare, the report was introduced at a pre-council study session. Had it been a working session, where the mayor, council and committee were engaged in a dialogue of depth, that might have been appropriate, but such was not the case. Committee Chair Doug Baxter, the violence prevention coordinator for CHI Franciscan Health, did a good job of presenting the group’s recommendations, and people in attendance were able to make comments, as were committee members, but the emphasis was less, considering the importance the mayor placed on the topic a year ago.
In the council meeting that followed, violence prevention was part of the emerging issues report that included the mayor trying to recruit Dick’s Drive-In to town. Hardly issues of equal standing.
But the most disappointing part of the evening was the mayor and council’s reaction. While they went to great lengths to thank the committee for their work — some might say election-year pandering was more evident than normal — there was no engagement in the topic. No sense of commitment to follow through and no assertion of support.
In fact, several council members’ first reaction after the meeting was that there is no money for this project and a view that financial support for staff to help steer the effort was very unlikely. Mayor Jim Ferrell, who had started the committee with much hoopla, did provide some words of concern but also said the city needs to be concerned about the cost. He planned to assign Yarden Weidenfeld, his senior policy adviser to look at the project. But Weidenfeld’s background is as a former prosecuting attorney, the same as Ferrell, and not of a social or community welfare discipline that might be more valuable in considering financial support. Some of the recommendations have minimal financial impact and could be blended into city government in some manner, but their lack of visibility and staff accountability would soon find them lost among competing priorities with no way to judge any impact.
A review of the committee’s work demonstrates members took great care to minimize the potential costs of their ideas and were very cautious in using understated wording rather than dramatizing the challenge for effect.
In looking at some of the recommendations, the city could easily encourage residents and employees to be mentors and to use gun safes and lock up guns. But would officials be willing to provide the “incentives,” as requested, to make the program actually work? How would the city go about supporting the creation or expansion of after-school programs? Assign it to Parks and Recreation, or look to the school district to pick up the tab? Will the city start a community resource center? Or, after exploring the idea, will the cost scare them, because done correctly it could be pricy? Will the city start a comprehensive job-training program? A smaller summer youth employment program has been suggested previously in this column but not pursued. A bigger program seems unlikely unless the city can find someone else to pay for it. And will city leaders be willing to support expansion of substance abuse treatment? And adding the staff person as requested by the committee to ensure an elevated city focus remains on these issues? Not very likely.
Most of the recommendations were predictable, but they are also thoughtful and well-considered. They actually identify the problem areas and suggest solutions. But that may be the problem.
Federal Way, like many other communities, has some serious challenges. We want and need a well-educated populace where entry-level and family-wage jobs are prevalent. We also need resources that are responsive to human and community problems. But that is not where the money is being spent.
We have what appears to be a mayor and council whose short-term thinking would rather fund the end result — violence — through additional police officers, rather than invest in longer-term prevention identified by the committee that might provide solutions. And scheduling the VPC report after the 2017-18 budget cycle has been completed wasn’t good planning.
The VPC was formed as a temporary political solution to mollify a community terrified over several murders. But the committee became more than the political “punt” it was expected to be. The murders were never the real problem confronting Federal Way. The city says the suspect is in custody. The real problem is in the mirror that the committee held up for us to see. We have challenges in front of us, and we owe the committee a debt of thanks for pointing them out to us.
But our elected officials were unprepared for the report, and it may be much more than they wanted to know, particularly in an election year, and again raises the question of priorities. What is most important to us?
The mayor and council do not appear excited about making a policy course correction and implementing the committee’s recommendations. Will we again accept the answer “there’s no money” when we know it isn’t the lack of money, but how and where it is spent?
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at email@example.com.