Columnist Joni Balter of The Seattle Times has a good riff going in her attacks on Seattle City Council president Richard Conlin. She thinks Conlin is turning Seattle into "one giant kibbutz. Pesticide-free, of course." The latest to get her goat: Conlin's initiative to strengthen Seattle's food system, with all kinds of measures to promote healthy eating, healthy farmers, healthy attitudes.
Conlin is a rich target, and he probably ought to be banned from traveling to Berkeley ever again. But what the satire misses is that he's proving to be an effective new leader of the council, maybe even finally giving Mayor Greg Nickels a worthy counterforce.
The most recent council president, Nick Licata, symbolized a kind of marginal resistance to the powerful mayor's initiatives. It won its victories, such as they were, mostly through leaks to the press and other bits of headline grabbing. Meanwhile, the mayor lost in popularity but pretty much got whatever he wanted from the council, which couldn't get its act together legislatively amid all the rushing to microphones. The council excelled in scoring points, and then blaming Mayor Meanie for not being able to pass any bills.
Somewhat surprisingly, Conlin came into his new office eager for the job he had been denied before and bent on organizing the council into an effective body. He's helped by the newcomer Tim Burgess, a well-organized businessman with good political skills, a rejuvenated Tom Rasmussen, now working on bigger issues such as parks and Seattle Center, and Sally Clark, now chairing the urban planning committee.
Conlin and the Mayor have never liked each other, but they seem to be cooperating, as with their recent joint initiative to charge 20 cents per grocery bag (Down, Joni!). The Mayor, ever wary that Conlin might run against him in 2009 (unlikely, in my view), seems to be hugging an opponent and his issues. But Conlin is not turning into putty, and he's leading a drive to have a parks levy next fall that the mayor opposes. This could be a first real test whether the council has refound an independent role.
The Seattle City Council has been out in the wilderness for at least the past 15 years. Each member operates independently, cultivating mini-constituencies and their pet issues as a way of staying in office for decades. Mayor Nickels sharply restricted access to his department heads from the council, which used to meddle a lot in administration this way; and he springs things like the budget on them at the last minute. The council has largely retaliated by ignoring the mayor, but doing little in its own right. It's very dysfunctional, though the activists and the media have liked the arrangement (lots of sympathy and leaks).
Can Conlin put the broken council back together again? There are disaffected members, such as Richard McIver (who would have been president if he had not stumbled with a domestic abuse allegation), Jan Drago (isolated in her support of business interests, though still powerful on transportation issues), and Licata (relegated to minor committees). New member Bruce Harrell is still a puzzle to his colleagues. But Conlin is experienced, open to the wishes of his colleagues, and providing some structure for the year's agenda. This is progress. At last.
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