Heading into fall local elections, with primaries in mid-August, we face big issues and a paucity of large-minded candidates capable of dealing with those issues intelligently.
True, small signs of national economic renewal are beginning to be seen: lowering business inventories, strengthening bank balance sheets, and what appears to be a slowing in the rate of the housing-price collapse. We may be near or at the bottom of the most serious downturn since the 1930s.
But the way back will be stop-and-start. Stimulus monies, intended to jump-start growth, have thus far been coming from Washington, D.C. in a trickle (less than 10 percent of them in the pipeline). Bank balance sheets, thanks to the feds, are improving but a general unfreezing of credit is still distant. Federal debt has skyrocketed and $1 trillion-plus annual federal budget deficits are projected for several years ahead. And unemployment rates — which begin to ease only six months after the actual end of a downturn — are unlikely to improve until the latter part of 2010.
Bottom line: Our local economies, as the national economy, will be hurting for at least the next 18 months. Slow growth will mean fewer public tax revenues. State and local budget deficits will remain high. Tough times call for tough-minded leadership. But, in Washington state and especially in Seattle, such leadership is hard to find. Why is that?
If you think local elections are meaningless, consider what our city might be like today had Mark Sidran or Paul Schell been elected mayor eight years ago rather than Greg Nickels. Nickels' tenure has been one more usually associated with big cities, where downtown money and power call the tune and elected officials dance to it. Huge, expensive projects such as Sound Transit light rail, subsidies and streetcars for Vulcan's South Lake Union real estate development, and the proposed Mercer Mess redo (also designed to benefit Vulcan) — these things have taken precedence over provision of basic public services.
While light rail, involving the largest local-level tax increase in American history, will carry small numbers of riders from a handful of fixed-point stations, our local bus system, carrying many times more riders at less cost to far more destinations, keeps getting cut back. Nickels even went so far as to defer basic bridge and street maintenance for several years, spending the budgeted money elsewhere, before (successfully!) going to voters for a special levy to do the work he should have done within the normal city budget.
Sidran, said to be interested in a regional EPA appointment, appears to lack interest in a rematch with Nickels. Former City Council President Peter Steinbrueck, a one-sided winner in polling matchups against Nickels, will forgo the mayor's race for a study sabbatical. Council member Nick Licata, also a winner in matchups against Nickels, has chosen to seek reelection to the council rather than challenge Nickels. Business executive Joe Mallahan, whose personal savings would allow him to match Nickels' campaign war chest, appears earnest but ignorant of local issues and of politics in general. Retiring Council member Jan Drago, not seeking reelection, is talking up her own mayoral candidacy. Drago, when it comes to public policy, is Nickels in drag. She has been Vulcan's and other developers' most avid and consistent agent on the council.
Not a promising outlook for constructive change only a few months ahead of the mayoral election.
Our council is not corrupt. But its members collectively seem not to understand the relationship of their legislative body to the Mayor's office. In the oft-used phrase, the executive proposes; the legislative disposes. But, with the exception of Licata, most council members seem focused more on going along and getting along with Nickels/Drago agendas than they are in applying critical oversight to them. If you attend or watch on TV many council meetings, you know that they often are empty exercises in hyper-courtesy (among council members and toward the executive branch) rather than ough-minded examinations of city policy. With Drago and Richard McIver leaving the council, there's a chance that a couple strong newcomers, added to Licata, could help energize returning incumbents and make the council a genuine working body.
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