Some Seattle journalists have complained that new mayor Mike McGinn has been less accessible since taking office. McGinn was famously available during his campaign taking cell phone calls and meeting with reporters, but lately he has been avoiding one-on-ones. He turned down Seattle Times editorial board member, influential columnist, and frequent fellow KUOW "Weekday" panelist Joni Balter, for example. Mark Matassa, McGinn's spokesman, says it was nothing personal, she was just the first to ask, so the new policy became known when the mayor told her "no."
Matassa (a former Times, P-I and Crosscut editor) says the mayor will talk with reporters about specific stories if he's got something to say, but he isn't interested in wide-ranging general interviews right now. This is a shift from campaign mode. Indeed, McGinn's media friendliness worked to his advantage by allowing him to contrast himself with opponent Joe Mallahan who was notoriously uncomfortable with the press and sheltered by his staff from scrutiny.
Instead, McGinn has now initiated brown-bag lunches with reporters, the first on Tuesday, Jan. 26. He says he'd like to do them once a month. The first get-together was a little too formal. Reporters asked questions and some taped or filmed answers while seated around a rectangular arrangement of conference tables in a room on the 7th floor of City Hall. McGinn's staff passed out materials on the seawall and he had Bob Chandler from the city's Department of Transportation by his side with charts and samples of the rotten, worm-eaten seawall structure, bits of which unnervingly resembled old driftwood. Clearly, they were prepared for a show-and-tell on the seawall as a follow-up to the briefing they gave the city council.
Questions, though, were more wide-ranging, from expanding broad band access (nothing to announce yet) to whether to name a city park after Perugia (McGinn agreed with tabling that idea, though he's sent a make-nice letter to he counterpart in our Italian sister city). Wisely, McGinn refused to say more about the Amanda Knox case which rouses more passions than the combined debates over school closures, Viaduct options, and whether to use rock salt on city streets.
More substantively, he indicated that he has not backed off on his insistence that the issue of whether or not the city is on the hook for downtown tunnel over-runs be resolved in the city's favor, and it seems that it likely won't taken care of this legislative session. McGinn says the project has yet to reach its point of "no return," but is not exactly sure when that point will be reached.
McGinn was also queried about the options for highway 520 replacement, and indicated he was talking to people about that ("doing our due diligence," is how he describes it), including talking with unhappy West-side neighbors of the project. "A lot of people in the community...feel passionately about the design of that bridge," he says, which means a lot of people in or near Montlake hate what's being proposed. But he reiterated what he said during his campaign, that he favors a scaled down version that is more about transit capacity than cars.
The 520 project, which has been sold, like the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, as driven by seismic concerns, is also likely to face philosophical opposition without major modifications of the current options, though McGinn might not want fight battles state highway battles on two fronts at once. The fact remains, however, that a big, car-centric 520 would violate some of the core environmental principles that McGinn stands for.
One interesting tidbit from the lunch is that McGinn is neither shy nor embarrassed about using polling to push his policy agenda — the seawall being a case in point. McGinn paid for a seawall poll out of his own pocket, and the result showed strong support for moving ahead, useful ammo in convincing the city council to go along. That strengthened the case he's made to put the measure on the ballot in May. McGinn says the values of polling and his ability to take the city's pulse and respond are proven in his successful campaign for mayor (polls that helped him craft a victory with his tunnel flip-flop, for example), and developing strategies for passing the Parks levy, and the Roads & Transit measure, which McGinn lists as among his notable civic accomplishments as a Sierra Club activist. Some politicians are publicly shy about polls and pollsters, but McGinn has put one on his staff as a top, $110,000-a-year adviser.
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