Friday Harbor mayor and council clash over leadership issue - Salish Current
March 19, 2024
Friday Harbor mayor and council clash over leadership issue
Nancy DeVaux

A heated discussion between Friday Harbor town council members and the mayor centered on roles and communication. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current © 2024)

March 19, 2024
Friday Harbor mayor and council clash over leadership issue
Nancy DeVaux

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The Town of Friday Harbor is the only incorporated town in San Juan County and is the county seat. It is 1.23 square miles (787 acres) with 2,747 residents, and the commercial center and the terminal for Washington State Ferries on San Juan Island. 

Friday Harbor is also the primary urban growth area on San Juan Island: The most important issues faced by the town government such as ferries, affordable housing, protecting water resources and utilities, require the town and county to work together. 

When dysfunction in town government occurs, it makes collaboration on these issues difficult, if not impossible, both within the town and with its partners.

A recent row between the mayor and the town council in Friday Harbor raises the issue of management style. How important is it for communication to be shared in an open and collaborative manner between the mayor, the town council and the town administrator?  

Friday Harbor, like all 68 incorporated towns in Washington, has a mayor-council form of government, with a mayor and five council members. Since 1987, the town has also had a full-time administrator.

The March 7 meeting of the Friday Harbor Town Council devolved into a shouting match between the mayor and a council member after the mayor sent two letters without first passing them by the town council.

Mayoral actions

The argument occurred during the correspondence section of the agenda and centered on the role and actions of Mayor Ray Jackson, who has been mayor of Friday Harbor for two years, and has also recently announced his intention to run for the open position from San Juan Island on the San Juan county council. 

As council member Barbara Starr summarized the issue in introducing it, the first of the two letters discussed involved a long-standing conflict between a county employee and the use of town water in a vacation rental house. The council had agreed to send the enforcement letter, asking to review it before it was sent.

The mayor sent the letter to the county council without showing it to the town council, saying that he wanted to make sure it was received before the staff member’s departure from employment with the county.

Council member Mason Turnage turned the heat up, complaining vociferously about the tone and style of the letter. 

“I’m livid” Turnage stated forcefully. There were repeated interruptions between Jackson and Turnage as Jackson tried to explain and Turnage continued his complaints. 

“Do you know what type of government we have?” Jackson asked rhetorically several times, reiterating that Friday Harbor has a mayor-council government. The council is the legislative branch and the mayor has executive authority, he said. He asserted he had the right to act on administrative matters without informing the town council, and had only shared the letter, after the fact, as a matter of courtesy. 

Friday Harbor Mayor Ray Jackson (observing Wear Purple Day during Domestic Violence Month in October 2022) and town council members disagreed about roles and authority in a recent meeting. (Town of Friday Harbor)

“This has been an issue for some time and it took me some time to figure out how the structure really works,” Jackson said. “My job as related to (being the) the mayor is to implement policy. Your job is to make the policy. My job as the mayor is to enforce the policy.”

The argument continued with raised voices, until Starr asked them to lower their voices and give others an opportunity to speak. 

“I understand if you wanted to write to them as the mayor,” council member Anna Maria de Freitas said, “but you did not just say the letter was from the mayor, you kept on referring multiple times about the town council and the town council feelings, and that is the reason why we needed to be involved because we wanted to be able to represent our own demeanor to the county.”

de Freitas told the mayor, “It seems like you’re a maverick and you just do whatever you want. Yes, you might have administrative and executive authority but there’s a lot of other authority that you need to run by the council and we don’t want to be in incriminated in your letters,” she said.

Turnage reiterated that letter was inappropriate and disrespectful. “I feel disrespected,” he said.

Jackson responded, “You feel that I need to bring everything to you from administrative standpoint to the town council — I don’t have to do that!”

Turnage said he would have written a more tactful letter, to which Jackson replied, “I don’t need you to write a letter! This is the problem that you have. This is not a legislative issue. This is an administrative issue. I am the mayor and I am the chief executive officer!”

Starr told the mayor that there is “a pattern of behavior that I see from you, Mayor, which is that you communicate to us that you are special. You are above us; that you have authority and knowledge that we do not, and that you are not accountable to us, and you are not a team player with us.” 

She said that just because it wasn’t a legislative issue doesn’t mean the town council has no right to participate, especially when it comes to the town’s relationship with its most important collaborator, the county.

“So,” Starr said, “I have lost confidence in your leadership because it’s sort of like you’re above the rest of us.” 

Inclusivity

The council also discussed a second letter that was sent by ferry-served communities and signed by council members and mayors in other communities. For Friday Harbor, Jackson signed the letter, but did not bring it to the attention of the council members. 

de Freitas has been working on the ferry issue in collaboration with the county and expressed dismay at being left out. “I would ask that instead of your instincts based on your belief that you are the executive who can act without communicating with the council that you try something different, that you try including us more, please,” she said.

de Freitas said she had been on the council for 17 years and served under three mayors and four administrators. “I have never in all of my years had a session like this. We have never raised our voices. We did not always agree, but we were professional, and we heard and we listened. I am just very disappointed with this whole session. I am disappointed with you and I’m really embarrassed in front of all our constituents.”

More constituents became aware of the argument after the Zoom-recorded meeting was posted several times on local Facebook pages, eliciting many comments. Among them, Alice Deane posted, “I watched the video of that meeting, it was just horrifying.” Former mayor Carrie Lacher weighed in, saying, “That was awful.”

Per the “Mayor and Council Member Handbook” published by the Association of Washington Cities and the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, “Effective mayors see themselves not only as leaders staking out policy positions, but also as facilitators of effective teamwork.”

At the close of the session, Jackson had the last word: “I will reiterate that I didn’t do anything that was outside the scope of what I was supposed to do as the mayor of this town, and if I had to do it again I would do exactly the same thing.” 

The nonpartisan League of Women voters wrote in their Observer Corps Notes, “Council members expressed consternation at a letter the mayor sent to the San Juan County Council. Council members said the mayor too often acted alone, failed to share information, and was not a team player. The mayor defended his actions, saying that purely administrative matters with no legislative element were his responsibility and within his power to act on unilaterally. He requested that town council members not talk to town staff without informing him, which at least one council member declined to do.”

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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