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Politics: The snow storm that won't end

Seattle's blown snowstorm response has revived as a major political issue. It could have been forgotten already, but facts are stubborn things (and it's an election year).
This snow just won't melt away.

This snow just won't melt away. Lisa Albers

On KUOW's "Weekday," last Friday, we discussed the mayor's snow problem (my fellow panelists were Joel Connelly of Seattlepi.com and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times. People are stirred up over the Times' story that was the result of looking over thousands of public documents related to the storm response. The conclusion was that the two Seattle Department of Transportation staffers charged with managing the storm were inexperienced, that the city often didn't use all its snow plows, and that some areas appeared to get favorable treatment, notably the Admiralty area of West Seattle where Mayor Greg Nickels lives, as does his deputy mayor, Tim "the Shark" Ceis. In short, the Times concluded the snow response was "botched."

Some complain this is either all rehash or just an extension of Seattleites whining. One theory: Seattle is full of newcomers who expect East Coast or Midwestern levels of plowing during storms whereas natives know that such storms are rare and the best thing to do is just sit tight for a few days until it melts. My take is that hilly Seattle will never have the perfect response, but that the city did under-perform on major streets. I drove an all-wheel drive Subaru down Eastlake in conditions that were really outrageous, with the unplowed snowing forming hazardous frozen ruts. KUOW host Marcie Sillman described her local arterial as something one might have encountered at Leningrad. Everyone has their own story.

I also thought the system of prioritizing some plowing by the order of citizen complaints was silly. Such priorities should be set by need, and that involves knowing the neighborhoods much more intimately. I also thought King County's Metro let people down with poor communication about bus service. That wasn't the city's fault, but the street conditions also made it dicier for Metro's buses.

Nickels goofed by giving himself a gentleman's B for performance before the storm effects were fully dealt with, and that grade differed greatly from what the general public thought. The damage was political: a mayor who prides himself on practical competence was seen as having one of his major strengths revealed as a weakness. His poll numbers sank, potential mayoral opponents took a second look, the mayor promised to do better (break out the salt next time), and everyone seemed to assume the blown snow crises would be over.

The Times story gives it new life on a couple of levels. One is that Nickels has chosen to run Seattle as a Chicago-style strongman. He's not popular, but good enough to get re-elected and suck up most of the money to fund a race. But by taking so much power to himself, de-fanging the city council, demanding total loyalty from staff and appointees, centralizing control, marginalizing the neighborhoods, he's put himself in a position where the buck on everything stops with him. The one thing worse than a strongman is a strongman who fails when push comes to shove. Nickels has had some other high-profile failures, such as his waterfront tunnel scheme and his inability to get road project "stimulus" money out of Olympia for Seattle. But like the AIG bonuses, the storm seems to be the one that sticking.

Second, it suggests that the full story of the storm response wasn't told and the city council was at best under-informed or worse, mislead. They're going to take heat to get things fixed, but now they're faced with not taking what the city says at face value. An argument over sand, salt and snow plows is a credibility problem. Nickels is asking for an ethics review to determine if there was any favoritism in the snowplowing, but the possibility of finding a smoking cell phone call ordering plows to the mayor's house is certainly not the whole focus of the outrage.

Since the current make-up of the council is pretty Nickels-friendly, this puts them in a spot. They might rather the problem fade with the springtime. The council is stocked with potential challengers to the mayor who have taken a pass on running against him in 2009: Nick Licata, Richard Conlin, Tim Burgess. Others have been sniffing around, but no serious candidate has yet jumped into the race. But even if they don't run, the onus now falls on them to hold the mayor and city staff accountable. Nickels owned the snowstorm response, now the council owns fixing what was broken. Joel Connelly predicts more hot air from the council, a pretty safe guess, but they'd be foolish to leave it at that. They need to follow the Times' and investigate. I'm sure there are some unemployed P-I reporters who would be happy to do it on a freelance basis — no need for expensive consultants.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Mar 23, 5:12 a.m. Inappropriate

It's not about snow, it's about public opinion crystalizing about the City under Nickels at a particular moment of 'reflection'.

Something that would've been avoided had the media been doing a better job at handling the details of government responsibility, not just making up silly little stories to maintain the veneer.

:-)

-Douglas Tooley
http://motleytools.com/blog

Posted Mon, Mar 23, 6:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Sorry Knute, but we need more than a Councilmember challenging Nickels. We need an advocate from the community who knows how this administration has abandoned there needs.
Regardless of the Councilmembers individual talents, they have collectively caved on the issue of making a stink about the harshness and myopic approach of this administration.

There must be a frustrated, community leader out there who understands the lingo of city hall poliics and balances that with activism, sensitivity and compassion for our needy.
If no one steps forward, then the residents of Seattle deserve what they get.

Art

Posted Mon, Mar 23, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

First of all, in Maple Leaf, the snow response was botched completely. The majority of Maple Leaf is at between 400 and 510 feet in elevation, so snowfall happens here when it's not in other parts of town (and we are way closer than also-high-elevation West Seattle to the Convergence Zone, and get extra precipitation at times from that as well). The majority of Maple Leafeans also live on or near steep slopes because Maple Leaf is a major hill.

During this winter's snow debacle, no side street attention and minimal to no attention to the arterials here resulted in people being LITERALLY stuck in their homes for in excess of a week. Old people without access to pharmaceutical refills, people who did stock up on firewood and groceries still ran out or very low--and grocery stores weren't getting new supplies in, so shelves were growing bare--and with almost NO sidewalks in this area pedestrianism was perilous to impossible for many.

I myself have lived in Colorado and Wisconsin and I know from snow and snow response. But I'm also a third generation Seattleite and know from what Seattle snow means. And I remain convinced that heads should roll for the botched snow response, and the first one is Nickels's (who bugs me for other reasons, too).

There is no way I'm voting for him: Dan Savage has my vote unless someone has the balls to make a serious run against Nickels.

smacgry

Posted Mon, Mar 23, 9:05 a.m. Inappropriate

"break out the salt next time"

Having bought two used cars that were quickly rusted to death by salt I am less enthusiastic about salt as a road clearing agent than some people. The newest of those cars (junked at age seven) had spent a lot of time in Chicago.

One of the things I noticed when I moved out here about 50 years ago was that there were so many old cars. Yeah, I know, thrifty Norwegians and sluggish economy but I think that cars also lasted longer out here.

kieth

Posted Mon, Mar 23, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't understand who has given the Nickels re-election campaign so much money that 'everyone who might possibly run against him is cowering on the sidelines.' Surely, the big money from downtown cannot still be satisfied with his administration--after they, along with the rest of us, were snowed in and lost revenue as a result of the storm.

Nickels is now Seattle's own George W. Bush. Isn't there some smart person out there who can put up a website and ask 'the common folk' for financial help? (I don't have much cash, but I'd gladly send a little.) I would hope that others in all the neighborhoods dissed by Nichols and his cadre of bobble-heads would do the same.

Otherwise I want to get a write-in campaign going for Kermit the Frog because I want to vote, but I will NEVER vote to elect Greg Nickels for another term.

Finally, for future weather advice, SDOT is advised to look at Cliff Mass's weather blog for a start.

m-t-e

Posted Mon, Mar 23, 6:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Mayor Nickel's administration has been an ongoing disaster of continuous deviousness and spinning to neighborhoods, City Council, and anyone else with ears. He has so intimidated other elements of city government that they blat out any untruth that they think will keep them in his and his minions good graces-the public be damned.

City Council has well demonstrated itself to be shallow in insight, unable/unwilling to do research, and just plain incapable of good long term thinking or planning. Instead of dealing with reality, it prefers to deal with pie-in-the-sky feel goodisms ( city goats and $$$ porta potties among others) that have little to do with the actual lives people conduct here. "Boutique thinking" is derigueur. They accept,unexamined, information from the Mayor's Office and various interest groups that the slightest perusal of, or thinking about, would indicate was bogus. It all sails right over their heads. And G-- help those who really do good research, and then try to bring it to their attention. Then they are an outstanding peerage of tin ears. And if they make an insane decision based on hot air, they will tell you that that was the best available at the time. Why not wait until they actually know something? Being told that "they don't revisit decisions when new information comes to light" just makes them look even more pin headed. As one neighbor wrote in reply to the above quoted," What the h--- do you think we are paying you to do?" Apparently, not much.

The really sad fact is that getting rid of Nickels and the present City Council probably won't do much good because they will simply be replaced with more of the same since not enough voters in this city do their homework before marking the ballot. Electing gilded t--ds seems to be our doom. And then we all sit around and wonder where all the smelly goo on our shoes came from.

The snow job about the December snow was just another classic example of how it all operates. The ethics probe, of course, will find the Mayor innocent of all wrong doing ( he's very careful to pick stakeholders who do his bidding). Some minor functionaries may get slapped around, but the real problems will never come to light. The Mount Rainier of garbage swept under the rug will continue to sit and grow, invisibly, in the center of the city. It would be nice to see it erupt, or maybe just melt down. We need more sunshine.

walker

Posted Mon, Mar 23, 7:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Road salt discussions aside, how come the Seattle media continue to hide from Seattleites what snow is really made of? Let's acknowledge that our snow is in fact different. Snow is ice, air and water. Seattle's snow like like 75% air, 20% ice and 5% water. Snow in the Midwest and Rockies is like 89% air, 10% ice and 1% water. If Denver weren't so dry (even when there's snow falling), it would come to a standstill.

Also, how come the term "city council" or "council" are never preceded with "the"? Always been a mystery to me.

Anyway mayor is going to drive council around in snow next time.

hincklem

Posted Mon, Mar 23, 7:44 p.m. Inappropriate

"I also thought King County's Metro let people down with poor communication about bus service. That wasn't the city's fault, but the street conditions also made it dicier for Metro's buses." Excuse me Knute but Metro doesn't have snow plows the city does. The poor communications on Metro's part was due to Metro not knowing what f#$king streets were plowed or not. I totally blame Seattle city officials for screwing Metro's schedules. The Time's article just proved what the rest of us who live outside Seattle already knew, Seattle officials are a joke, incompetent and morons.

hlongan

Posted Mon, Mar 23, 9:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Berger has written a good starting analysis of the December fiasco and identified key issues: the ability of the mayor to deliver on basic services, the role of the City Council in oversight and leadership, the absence of principled political opposition, and, of course, the economics of Seattle election campaigns. One additional issue might also get some attention, namely, Nickels' chains of command down the agencies under his office. What is the role of Grace Crunican in all of this? As director of SDOT it was she who should have been in charge of those plows and the policies that deployed them, not Nickels directly. Was she? Even given the debated no-salt policy, there seems to have been no reasonable strategy to handle a, according to Cliff Mass, relatively predictable, though severe, weather event. Was Nickels being reasonable in expecting competent performance from SDOT managers, or was the real surprise in how they underperformed?
A reminder that a lot of competent work got done by the city employees (including some officials), by SDOT employees and Metro drivers, the majority of whom, from what I could tell, were trying their hardest in extreme circumstances.

bkochis

Posted Tue, Mar 24, 2:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Latest TOP 10 most popular names for hizzoner so far:

1. MAYOR McCHEESE

2. MAYOR McCONDO

3. MAYOR NOPLOW

4. MAYOR SNOWJOB

5. MAYOR 5-CENTS

6. MAJOR NOPLOW

7. MAYOR McSLEAZE

8. MAYOR FAILure

9. MAYOR GRIDLOCK

10. MAYOR QUIMBY

All the names that are just too mean to such a nice fellow, like MAYOR McFATTY, MAYOR PORK, MAJOR PORK, MAYOR BIGMAC, etc. will not be included in the Top 10 names for HIS HONOR. This is Seattle, a nice city, after all.

We are monitoring the TIMES, P-I, Weakly, Strangler, Crosscut, Publicola, and a few blogs for the most mentions in comments from the citizenry.
Newest contenders:
MAYOR DISASTER, MAJOR DISASTER, BOSS NICKELS, MAYOR NOSALT, MAYOR NICKELBAGS, MAYOR KNUCKLEHEAD, MAYOR FUDD

KBO Agent

Posted Tue, Mar 24, 6:37 a.m. Inappropriate

MAYOR NIFONG

Posted Tue, Mar 24, 7:34 a.m. Inappropriate

What this town needs is a community organizer to get the people out in the streets with snow shovels.

Posted Tue, Mar 24, 8:13 a.m. Inappropriate

the person who mentioned that snow hereabouts is extra wet may have a point. this past sunday there was a brief snow fall with flakes the size of sparrows, or a baby's hand which of course melted in no time. i was surprised that not even those vaunted old times cleaned the snow in front of their own doorstep! much less their own sidewalk. otherwise: this was a snow storm??? good gawd! what wuzzes seattlelites are! utterly philistine! and with an attitude because they drink lattes!

mikerol

Posted Tue, Mar 24, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate


for every poster here, the are a hundred 'voters' who will continue the tradition by voting for the empty headed current mayor and his gang of thieves !

more sound and fury, signifying nothing !

Posted Tue, Mar 24, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Politics: The snow storm that won't end

It won't end because people like you keep writing about it as if it were a really important topic.

It wasn't a "fiasco" as one poster characterizes it. It was a bit of snow.

Posted Thu, Mar 26, 6:52 p.m. Inappropriate

First of all, thanks for the article, Knute. I was out of town during the snow storm, so I can't comment firsthand about how it was/wasn't handled. But this is a pretty even-handed article.

However, I'm puzzled at the level of vitriol aimed at the mayor, both in some of the comments here and in general. A two-term incumbent mayor is inevitably going to make some unpopular decisions. But Nickels ran as a nuts-and-bolts candidate, and has followed through on that pledge, including:

Repairing the city's infrastructure, including fixing potholes, repaving streets; and repairing sidewalks;
Working to restore Northgate;
Adding Park Rangers to patrol city parks;
Increasing citywide recycling efforts.

On the national stage, Seattle has emerged as a key player in the worldwide campaign to deal with climate change. Over 900 mayors nationwide joining Seattle in pledging to exceed the Kyoto Protocol's target of a 7% reduction of greenhouse gases below 1990 levels.

No mayor is perfect, and there are areas I hope the mayor addresses, particularly adding more police and continuing to address the city's transportation issues. An open, honest debate about these and other issues is good for both the mayor and the city. Here's hoping we can have one. Seattle deserves no less.

Thanks again...

Mrmurrah

Posted Sun, Mar 29, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

There really shouldn't be any confusion about the irritation with the Mayor, vitriolic or otherwise. Cities are meant to provide a certain basic level of services: police/public safety and infrastructure (roads, utilities) are the two main ones. Mayors also do well when they have vision and charisma.

Nickels's results in public safety have been mixed; in many areas crime is down, but in some neighborhoods crime is exploding, and there has also been a rash of gay bashings in town.

Nickels's results in infrastructure are also mixed: the snow debacle is a clear example of an immense failure. Not only were large parts of the city cut off from other parts of the city for over a week ("a little bit of snow" is one thing, but people unable to leave their homes in an *urban* environment for a week is quite another), but the lost public revenues from reduced Christmastime spending during the ice period is also Nickels's fault.

Filling potholes is not something the mayor should get high kudos for since it is a basic function of any properly run city. While he has been instrumental in getting biking improvements done (often to humorous effect, however, on streets too narrow to add proper bike lanes), which is great, huge tracts of the city still have no sidewalks at all. People in sidewalked parts of town don't get how important sidewalks are when your kids walk to school or when you want to choose to walk to the store and what-not but dare not because it's unsafe. But the lack of vision and initiative on this is deeply disappointing.

On vision, Nickels has actually been good: the recycling improvements are terrific, as are is other green initiatives. But when vision keeps you from keeping roads clear, preventing gay bashings, and putting in sidewalks, it's a *liability.*

Nickels is not and never has been that charismatic. He grates slightly as a public speaker. He's obviously smart, but he's no Obama.

He may give snow removal a B; I'd give him a C/C- as a mayor.

I could rail against the City Council for even greater weaknesses as a body--vote yes on neighborhood districts!--but Nickels should not be a shoo-in for reelection. I think he needs to work harder to justify the choices he's made, improve on the failures he's had, and a competitive run for the mayor's office is thus essential. He's been disappointing in way too many ways, and it may simply be time for a change.

smacgry

Posted Thu, Apr 2, 6:42 p.m. Inappropriate

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) needs to be thoroughly investigated. The snowstorm incident is not the only example of problems with SDOT. The mayor and City Council (under the leadership of Jan Drago's Transportation Comittee) are fearful of SDOT and have essentially given that department a blank check for unexcusable incompetence. The Council and the NEW mayor need to stop being "nice" and overhaul that department. Do you trust the current SDOT to spend taxpayers' money wisely for transportation in Seattle?

If there are real, gutsy investigative journalists out there (i.e., former P-I staffers)who have not yet been paid off by local politicians, now is the time to get to work. You can start with SDOT's disregard of SMC 11.14.475 for example.

Good luck!

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