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A relaxed, talkative, and reflective Tim Ceis

Tim Ceis visits Crosscut Credit: Michele Matassa Flores

For a guy who spent many years at the heart of Seattle politics — among the most liberal in the country — Tim Ceis has somewhat surprising advice for budget-strapped government leaders: 

Do what voters keep saying they want. Make across-the-board budget cuts. Be decisive. Quit asking taxpayers for more. “Live within the means you have. Let’s see if that works.” 

“We’ve always run to the rescue,” the former deputy mayor said, referring to political leaders’ responses to various measures cutting taxes or spending. “That was a mistake.” If voters see the impacts of cuts, they may come back and say they want better services, he said.

Ceis, who lost his deputy mayor’s job last fall when voters fired Mayor Greg Nickels in the primary, visited Crosscut this week for an open-ended conversation with writers and editors. He said voters are mad and worried.

“Nickels was the point of the spear on this voter anger,” he says. “Watch this election. I think it’s going to be an indication that the mood has changed.”

This was Ceis’ first interview since leaving City Hall at the end of last year, and he said he was surprised to realize how stressed he’d been once he decompressed. The guy who was nicknamed “The Shark” because of his hardball tactics spoke in a relaxed but direct style, discussing his new consulting practice, current mayoral politics, the city’s highly emotional police-shooting case, the McGinn-MOHAI flap, past snowplow regrets, and future political possibilities. And even that shark thing.

Here are some highlights:

Budget dealings

He generally gave favorable marks to Gov. Chris Gregoire, County Executive Dow Constantine and even Mayor Mike McGinn, who ousted Nickels. Pros: across-board cuts by the state and county, and union cost-of-living adjustments at the county and city.

The police shooting of John T. Williams

Ceis doesn’t believe the Aug. 30 shooting revealed any systemic problems in the Seattle Police Department, though he acknowledged questions about why Officer Ian Birk wasn’t trained to use a taser and didn’t employ other non-lethal tactics before killing the Native American woodcarver.

“It’s tough for a chief to come right out and say, ‘We were wrong.’ Because he’s got to wait for the investigative process,” Ceis said. “He does have to address his officers’ use of lethal force. People are asking … are the police too quick to use lethal force right now?”

But Ceis empathized with officers, in the wake of a rash of cop killings last year: “The police officers in this city and in this state are on edge. They’ve been targeted. If somebody pulls a weapon on them, they’re not going to be as questioning of their own instincts.”

McGinn and MOHAI

The recent flap between McGinn and the Museum of History & Industry has raised more questions about whether newly elected leaders are bound to follow deals cut by their predecessors. McGinn, boldy, has thrown wrenches into several deals he inherited, including the downtown tunnel planned to replace the viaduct; the design of a new Highway 520 bridge; and now the financing of MOHAI’s move to South Lake Union.

Ceis acknowledged that the Nickels administration undid some “handshake” deals early on, including one that would have put a Highway 519 off-ramp between Seattle’s baseball and football stadiums.

But, he said, MOHAI had a written agreement with Nickels’ staff that provided $7 million in city money to move from the University District to South Lake Union — plus any money the museum could get from the state because the state needed its land for 520 bridge construction.

“If you had a formal agreement that was memorialized in some way, then you’re bound to keep that,” Ceis said. “That was a memorialized agreement.” The museum negotiated an extra-good deal with the state, and despite McGinn’s pushing “they shouldn’t be penalized for that.”

The infamous snowplow fiasco

Often cited as a key reason voters turned against Nickels, the city was blasted for its inability to keep city streets clear during the record-setting snowstorms of late 2008.

Asked if he had any regrets, Ceis first joked, “I wish it had stopped snowing.” Then he began “second-guessing” — his own phrase — the city’s management of the storms. He said he and Nickels were both taken by surprise to learn that plow dispatchers used paper forms instead of computers, and more importantly that the city had a policy, from Mayor Paul Schell’s era, against using salt on streets.

“They were going to ‘save fish,’ ” he said, raising his fingers to make air quotes. But he saved his real criticism for himself, and his staff. “The systems were old and they hadn’t been exercised in a long time. … Ignorance is not an excuse.”

Snowplows now have GPS systems, he added, along with sensors to track how much sand, salt, and de-icer they’ve dispersed, and where.

Southeast Seattle development

Under Nickels, the next step in improving the underprivileged neighborhood was supposed to be transit development, Ceis said. “That seems to be on hold, and that concerns me. Because if we don’t finish the planning, then opportunities are going to be lost.”

In addition: “The schools in Southeast Seattle stink. By any measure, they are not performing. … And it’s not a question of poverty. I’m sorry, but that’s been proven” around the U.S. “The necessary reforms have not been addressed. The result will be we will create a permanent underclass.”

Political future

With passion like that, would Ceis ever consider a run for office?

“No. I’m unelectable,” he said, blaming the shark characterization, which he seems sensitive about now despite having hung shark pictures in his office at City Hall. 

He said he’s enjoying his consulting work, which includes representing Microsoft, AT&T, Russell Investments, and opponents of two statewide initiatives that would open up liquor sales to retail stores. But he also said he’s too direct, too impatient, too cut-to-the-chase to be an elected official.

And still, there was a seed of a campaign speech — if not for Ceis then maybe someone else — in his next statement, which argued that Seattle’s problem with conflict aversion gets in the way of progress because sometimes you need conflict to work things out.

“It’s how you manage the conflict that matters,” Ceis said. “If you use conflict and manage it, you can get a positive result.”

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