Oddly enough for a public figure, but Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is rather shy. And one place where he rarely shows his face is at City Hall, except around his top-floor offices. So it was big news when he suddenly showed up in City Council offices Thursday, working the corridor and greeting the councilmembers. "It made for a lot of buzz," said Tim Burgess, one councilmember who had been urging Hizzoner to "come on down."
The impromptu visit was really just an offshoot of two scheduled meetings with Richard Conlin and Richard McIver, but the genial moments were taken as a sign of a thaw in relations between the executive and legislative branches at City Hall. The council is better organized under its new president, Richard Conlin, which means more productive negotiations and more opportunities to agree on joint initiatives. A more pragmatic council emerged after the recent election of two new members, and most of the nine members (save Nick Licata) are part of a consensus on major issues. With no serious challenger emerging to run against Nickels for reelection in 2009, the mayor may also be feeling more magnanimous.
The low point in mayor-council relations was right after Nickels was elected in 2001. Councilmembers who supported either Paul Schell or Mark Sidran in that race went to see the newly elected Nickels, expecting to smoke a peace pipe and instead were told there would be "retribution." Department heads who used to have cordial relations with councilmembers (in part to end-run mayoral directives they didn't like) were suddenly told to give the council a cold shoulder. Soon the Mayor was running right over the disorganized, cry-baby council, emulating Chicago-style friends-and-enemies politics. That's gradually worn off, but relations are still frosty and distant.
Some blame this cold war on a flaw in the new City Hall's design. The mayor rides to his office from the basement parking garage on an elevator he can commandeer for his exclusive use (installed for security reasons). In the old days at City Hall, with its agonizingly slow (but common) elevators and no underground parking, everyone spent hours standing around in lobbies waiting for one of the four elevators to arrive. It was easy to run into fellow public servants, including the mayor, forced into making small talk. Believers in greater civility in government need to pay more attention to elevator planning.