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Mayor vs. council: As bad as it looks?

The mayor and city council president are in the kind of standoff that is embarrassing to the city and that has the potential to embitter working relationships.

Since late Thursday afternoon (Sept. 24), Seattle has looked like one of those small towns where the sheriff or the state patrol has to step in to run the police department because the mayor and city council are in such a fight that they have each appointed their own police chief — and instructed their appointee to lock the other side out of city offices.

Things are certainly weird. City Council President Richard Conlin couldn't cite any precedent Friday morning for his action in signing for Seattle in approving a draft environmental impact statement developed with the state on a waterfront tunnel. He said he had talked with lawyers in the City Attorney's office and they believed there wasn't a problem. He said state legal counsel involved with the tunnel also believed it would be valid. But he couldn't cite any part of the City Charter or ordinances that empowered him to sign.

Just before Conlin spoke with the media, Mayor Mike McGinn held a press conference in which he read parts of the charter in denouncing the signing as without legal standing. He described Conlin's action as a very serious matter, violating fundamental distinctions between the powers of the executive and the council.

City Attorney Peter Holmes's office issued a statement late Friday afternoon that didn't resolve the questions but seemed to share Conlin's concern about keeping the city in its formal partnership with the state Department of Transportation as co-lead agencies on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. McGinn questions the value of the position, saying that the state hasn't really treated the city as a partner.

The stage could be set for the kind of prolonged wrangling that often engenders increasing bitterness, creating fights on an ever=widening range of  issues. If there was a bright spot, it was that both McGinn and Conlin each avoided any suggestion that their relationship had already deteriorated to a point where it would be hard to work with one another on general city business.

However, McGinn did call on Conlin to "retract" his signature. Asked during the morning whether a city attorney statement against the signing might lead him to do so, Conlin said, "That is kind of a hypothetical."

The statement from Holmes didn't appear to have anything that would make Conlin feel the need to retract. But it seemed to suggest the likelihood of more fighting over whether the city will remain in the partnership with the state.

The statement said, "Additional questions may arise as to whether the City Council can direct SDOT (the Seattle Department of Transportation) to retain co-lead status through legislative action. The City Attorney's Office is engaging all parties in discussions to find a constructive way forward. Attorneys are researching legal issues as they arise in the course of these negotiations."

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


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