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Council, mayor: You first. No, after you

Politeness reigned supreme as Mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle City Council sat down to talk about his surprise seawall replacement bond issue. Unless the show of mutual respect was a front, it was possible to see the beginnings of compromise and even collaboration.
Mayor Mike McGinn leaves a discussion with Seattle City Council

Mayor Mike McGinn leaves a discussion with Seattle City Council Crosscut photo

It was ever so polite as the Seattle City Council and the new mayor sat down for their first serious meeting on Monday. They discussed the replacement of the waterfront seawall with restraint, decorum and even a bit of enthusiasm.

And, okay, a certain amount of tension. Continuing concerns about Mayor Mike McGinn's campaign opposition to replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a bored tunnel surfaced in questions from several council members, including Sally Bagshaw and Tom Rasmussen, the chair of the transportation committee.

Generally, though, the mayor's briefing in council chambers Monday (Jan. 25) brought a good discussion of the questions around timing, disruption to waterfront businesses, alternative financing plans, and other issues. And the meeting seemed to lay the ground work for cooperating on the series of related waterfront topics, while bringing talk from both sides about more face-to-face discussions on other issues.

After a gracious, even warm welcome from Council President Richard Conlin, McGinn made a quick but clear apology for surprising the council with his Jan. 14 proposal for putting a $241 million bond issue before voters in May. "I regret that I didn't vet this a little more thoroughly," the mayor said. Conlin and other council members made a point of thanking McGinn for having raised the seawall issue.

At one point before the council members began speaking, McGinn said he thought the council had raised a "fair question" about the cost estimates for the seawall. He caught himself and added, "In fact, I should say I think all of the questions are fair questions."

The mayor's briefing brought no particularly new information on the seismic dangers of a seawall collapse, which could trigger the toppling of the nearby viaduct. But McGinn, speaking earnestly, got no argument from the council about the potentially catastrophic loss of life.

The freshest item he put before the council was a poll that he commissioned personally on public attitudes, which suggested that 70 percent of likely Seattle voters would approve a bond issue if an election were held now. Spokesman Mark Matassa said the mayor is paying the $820 cost out of his own pocket. McGinn's poll also asked voters about a potential transit measure (McGinn is eager to expand streetcars) and a city Family and Education Levy renewal. He said there was no indication that putting the measures before voters in fairly close order would induce voter fatigue.

The tensest exchanges occurred between Bagshaw and McGinn. That could be a particular problem for McGinn, because she has taken an early lead on the council in shaping the seawall discussion. But, before raising concerns about her ability to trust McGinn on the tunnel issue, Bagshaw at one point said, "Mr. Mayor, I am so committed to working with you to move this (seawall) project forward." McGinn said their differences on the tunnel shouldn't prevent them from working together on the seawall.

McGinn seemed particularly willing to explore questions about timing of a seawall replacement bond with the council. Nick Licata and others suggested that the $1 million election cost for the city would be reduced significantly if the vote were held in conjunction with either the August primary or the fall general election rather than in a May special election. Even if the vote were held in May, the taxes financing the bonds wouldn't begin to be collected until 2011, McGinn said.

That seemed to create opportunity for McGinn and the council to find a comfortable compromise around an August or November vote. From a larger perspective, the council and the mayor face huge tasks over the coming months and years designing a new waterfront, replacing the viaduct, creating ecological balance, and assuring viable businesses along Elliott Bay. If they have started to establish a basis for trust and collaboration, the chances for well-designed public spaces, manageable costs, well-designed public spaces and good transportation will go up steeply.

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


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