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The talent exodus at Seattle city hall

Mayor McGinn's management style is likely to accelerate the talent drain.

Mayor Mike McGinn, in a visit at Crosscut.

Mayor Mike McGinn, in a visit at Crosscut. Chuck Wolfe

Note: Updated with comment from the city librarian.

News comes that Susan Hildreth, Seattle's excellent new librarian, will be departing to take a federal job. She is taking her place in a line that is becoming a significant exodus from City Hall. Ahead of her are Dwight Dively, the former budget czar now with the county; Tim Gallagher, the former head of Parks; Michael Killoren, the outgoing leader of the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs; Ray Gastil, the city planner brought out to oversee the waterfront park project; former Deputy Mayor Phil Fujii, now back at Vulcan; Housing director Adrienne Quinn; Grace Crunican, the transportation director; and quite a few others.

Some of this is to be expected: These are talented people, likely to draw offers. Seattle's economy is poor, meaning that many of these department heads would be presiding over years of painful cuts, furloughs, and strained staffers called on to do more than one job. But what really should be worrying is the McGinn factor, which could turn normal attrition into a parade.

Those who depart normally obfuscate their real reasons, but I have managed to gain some insight into the exodus. Deputy Mayor Fujii is said to have felt undermined by the mayor's inner circle, mostly his campaign brain trust, so that Fujii's efforts to keep open lines with the business community, for one, just got him in trouble. (We now basically do not have a full-charge deputy mayor, though Darryl Smith has the title of Deputy Mayor for Community with a modest portfolio of reports.) Gallagher at Parks was frozen out when he tried, in vain, to make a case for a special parks levy to fend off the brutal cuts now announced for his department. He barely had time to establish any rapport with the new mayor, saying that his job interview consisted of a few awkward moments with the mayor and special adviser Chris Bushnell, the controversial campaign aide who handled much of the transition decisions before being forced to leave himself. Dively, one of the most respected figures in all City Hall, was demoted.

Talking with Crosscut writers and editors this morning, McGinn said he was sorry to see Hildreth leave but that she had been recruited by the Obama administration. He praised her "very, very thoughtful" work in helping prepare his proposed budget for libraries next year. For her part, Hildreth noted: "The timing of my departure is not impacted by the McGinn administration.  In fact, this administration has been very supportive of the library.  I regret that I am leaving Seattle so soon.   It is a great city and has welcomed me in an amazing way." McGinn  commented that Michael Killoren was also hired for a big D.C. job in the National Endowment for the Arts. "Somebody is doing something right in Seattle," McGinn said, adding classily that it was a credit to the hiring done by his predecessor, former Mayor Greg  Nickels, and other involved with selection of personnel, including the library board.

The Obama administration's fondness for Seattle talent aside, two overall factors in this rookie administration seem also to be pushing people out. One is a high degree of confusion and disorder. The other is a division into an inner circle, headed by chief of staff Julie McCoy (basically McGinn's campaign director) as well as many young believers brought over from the campaign. The normal senior team struggles to get time and clarity from the mayor. Under Mayor Nickels, top managers were given too many political marching orders, making them feel like cogs in a political machine. Now they are more confused, drifting in the new administration's period of groping for a new agenda.

Further, McGinn seems to be the kind of mayor, like Paul Schell, who is intensely interested in some areas (notably urban sustainability and green issues) and not very concerned about the full range of mayoral matters. The key issues for now would seem to be economic development, schools, public safety, retaining families, infrastructure repairs, and better relations with the region and Olympia. None of these is remotely near the top of McGinn's agenda, so far as I can see. Nor has he appointed top staffers who could really lead in the areas McGinn doesn't particularly care about.


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