Each fall there is a compelling ritual at Seattle City Hall, known as the City Council budget hearing. About 100 folks line up on each of two nights, carefully signing in hours before, to have their two minutes of fame (five if you bring a large group), imploring the council members to add a few more thousand dollars to the budget to help their group. It's a wonderful window into the real life of the city, its suffering, its caretakers, its nonprofit boardmembers and volunteers. And you can watch the reruns on The Seattle Channel. Among the highlights this past Tuesday night: a mom and daughter from the Seattle Derby Brats, wanting to keep Magnuson Park's Hangar 27 open for the roller derby team practice; business lobbyist Joe Quintana awkwardly opposing the latest business tax and then confessing that he was "crying in the wind" even to suggest it; Madeline, age 11, charming the room by reporting how she had buried a bird in the yard of the Cascade People's Center, a low income gathering place with all kinds of fun programs for this lively young woman. Walt Whitman would love these evenings. But underneath all the diversity and human drama were some discordant notes. One was the fairly hammy performance of Budget chair Richard McIver, making droll comments and generally commanding air time when one might have expected a more chastened and subdued demeanor by a man facing trial for a domestic abuse charge. The other false note comes from the dynamics of the council's budget review. Much of the human drama at the hearing comes from orchestrated interest groups, particularly the Human Services Coalition, or highly effective groups like the Phinney Neighborhood Association. The council, meanwhile, has very little maneuvering room on the budget. The annual charade goes this way. Mayor Nickels keeps the council in the dark until only a few months before adoption (late this month). The council, divided into nine individualists, does not figure out its priorities until the last minute. The mayor's office normally has a few million dollars of discretionary money that lets the council put its small imprint on the new budget -- this year it will likely be more money for buying Library books -- while pretty much rubber stamping the big mayoral proposal. This year, with the city coffers bulging with money from the real estate boom, lots of favors are being doled out, though it's hard to discern any real priorities of governing philosophy. This script allows the council to appear compassionate listeners to all the supplicants at these hearings, to reward them by ratifying the mayor's request or adding a few thousand more, and to take some credit for shaping the budget when they really deserve almost no credit. Good theater, to be sure. Good oversight and policy-setting by the council? Anything but.