Drawing lines at the seawall

Melbourne's striking design for a seawall on the Yarra River Credit: Mithun Architects/John Golling

If Mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle City Council were boxers, they would be in the early rounds on the seawall replacement question, still feeling each other out, circling and casting jabs from a safe distance. On Monday, they will move close enough to throw real punches, when the mayor goes before the council for a briefing on the seawall.

McGinn caught the council by surprise with his announcement Jan. 14 that he wants a May election on a $241 million bond issue to replace the deteriorating wall. He portrayed a two-year speedup of the seawall replacement as a matter of public safety for the waterfront and the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a view that he elaborated with a little bit of detail in a Seattle Times op-ed Saturday.

But the mayor, who wouldn’t answer viaduct-related questions from reporters when he unveiled his proposal, did pretty much the same with a host of good questions raised by a letter from the council. The council hit good points: the reliability of cost estimates, design questions, potential financing options that wouldn’t require more direct taxes on property owners, and other priorities the mayor and the city may have for raising taxes.

So far, the council has the momentum in resisting McGinn’s call for a hurried resort to the ballot. The council letter pulled together expertise from veterans and newcomer Sally Bagshaw, who knows the issues around the waterfront and plans to replace the viaduct with a tunnel. In contrast, McGinn looked like he was grasping for support as he, in a near self-parody of his ask-the-voter attitude, ended his mayoral-debutante op-ed with a call for the public to provide “your input on this issue” at his city web site.

The council letter, however, verged toward a patronizing tone with the new mayor, noting McGinn’s urgency and asking, “Have you received recent information that causes you to recommend modifications to the seawall replacement schedule presented by (the Seattle Department of Transportation)? If so, please provide council with that information.” Translation: Hey, newby, you know something?

If McGinn indeed has alarming, new information, the council question leaves a wide opening for him to strike a big blow. It would be easy to see the council then feeling it had to hold a May election. McGinn also has a chance to score points by portraying the council as overly concerned with Seattle’s habitual process.

Of course, politics practiced reasonably is much more than a fight or a contest; it’s about serving the public’s needs well. Doug Hurley, a leader on such voter-approved issues as the first Sound Transit construction package and an expert on infrastructure, recently suggested the council could take the mayor’s proposal as a good-faith effort to deal with a real problem, not an attempt to undermine the tunnel plan he opposed during his campaign. Then, the council could reject a May ballot as well-meant but premature, while using McGinn’s proposal as a spur toward a more carefully planned tax measure.

In such a scenario, seawall financing and other spending priorities could then be discussed collaboratively by the mayor and council, while taking account of both Seattle voters’ traditional generosity and the city’s current economic challenges. For that to happen, it would help if council and the mayor come out listening to one another Monday, rather than swinging.

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