A City Hall reform effort is brewing

A breakfast meeting the other morning sponsored by Real Change sounded a lot like a rally to dump Mayor Greg Nickels and, for that matter, much of the Seattle City Council.
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. (City of Seattle)

A breakfast meeting the other morning sponsored by Real Change sounded a lot like a rally to dump Mayor Greg Nickels and, for that matter, much of the Seattle City Council.

The opening skirmish in the 2009 Seattle mayoral and City Council campaigns will take place Monday, Nov. 17, when the council considers alternative proposals regarding allocation of money to Mayor Greg Nickels' (and Vulcan's) favorite Mercer Corridor Project, which would reconfigure streets near Vulcan's South Lake Union project to suit the developer's plans.

Proposal 1 is sponsored by City Councilwoman Jan Drago, Vulcan's point person within the council. It would authorize spending $30 million in 2009 without getting, beforehand, financial and economic information the council, in a May ordinance, requested as a condition for allowing Nickels to proceed with the project. A council majority reiterated that position in a Sept. 30 letter.

Drago's proposal would let property acquisition take place to expand rights of way in the corridor — without the ordinance's provisos having been met.

Proposal 2, by City Councilman Nick Licata, would not release the $30 million unless or until the conditions of the ordinance are met and a council review is made of the mayor's progress in closing a present $100 million funding gap for the Mercer project and work on Spokane Street.

Licata wants a revised finance plan for both projects; a schedule of anticipated revenues and expenditures; updated cost estimates; further value engineering analysis; an update on anticipated grant and partner funding; and a contingency plan identifying funding sources if there is a revenue shortfall. He also wants a completed environmental review for the Mercer Project. None of this basic information, Licata asserts, has been provided to the council.

Monday's meeting of the council Budget Committee is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. With a number of neighborhood and Democratic groups supporting Licata's position, it promises to be well-attended.

Anyone parachuting in from the outside world would say the outcome is a slam dunk. What Licata wants is what any responsible City Council would want before making such a decision. But not so fast. Until now, a council majority has pretty much capitulated to the Nickels and Vulcan agendas.

Nickels may not recognize it, but it is a lose-lose proposition for him.

If the Drago proposal is defeated, it will hearten Nickels' critics and provide evidence that Nickels no longer can roll the council on behalf of developer/campaign-contributor interests who provide his base of support. If the Drago proposal is adopted, it will further energize Nickels critics and move them further on their path toward backing a mayor/council reform slate next year.

Groups rally ahead of the meeting

The Wednesday morning annual Real Change breakfast had aspects of a Dump Nickels rally. Homeless advocates showed film footage in which they alleged that Nickels was lying outright both about the amount of present available housing for the homeless and the nature of the Nickelsville tent city encampment now situated in the University District. The people at Nickelsville were not really homeless, Nickels alleged on a giant TV screen at the breakfast, but really activists posing as homeless. They went home to their own beds at night. Nickelsville residents attested that they had no homes or beds of their own. The mayor's proposal for a multimllion-dollar new city jail also came under fire. The present jail's population, it was asserted, has shrunk rather than risen in recent years.

A call went out for attendance at the city council session by all at the breakfast who could get there. (At the time, the budget meeting was scheduled for Friday. It has since been rescheduled for Monday.) In the background, former council member Peter Steinbrueck and several prospective 2009 City Council candidates were talking political strategy for next year's election. Steinbrueck has been coy about running for mayor but can only have been encouraged by recent polling showing both Licata and him beating the mayor in one-on-one matchups. City Council member Tom Rasmussen also attended the Real Change breakfast but was not a part of the off-to-the-side discussions about real change at City Hall.

Steinbrueck, Licata, and former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge all have been approached by disaffected community groups to consider runs for mayor. Since the present council, with the exception of Licata, has been so tied to the mayor, discussion has included the option of putting together a full slate of mayoral/council candidates for 2009, as was done in the 1970s when reform forces pushed out a council perceived as complacent and ineffective. Putting such a slate together would not necessarily be easy. For political effectiveness, it would have to have just the right balance of neighborhood, racial, ethnic, and other constituencies. Competence would have to be its common denominator.

A Nickels defeat would not be facilitated by multiple opposition candidates. Crosscut Publisher David Brewster related yesterday that developer Greg Smith, until now a Nickels ally, was contemplating a mayoral candidacy. It remains to be seen if Smith could generate support among Seattle political activists who tend to see Nickels-allied developers as a part of the problem rather than a solution. Smith will need to make his plans for change quite specific.

Challenger Al Runte, a little known former University of Washington faculty member without any political money, drew 32 percent of the vote in the last mayoral election, in 2005. That 32 percent could be seen as a vote for anyone Not Nickels. A better known challenger, with a respectable campaign war chest — it need not match Nickels' — would not have a difficult ladder to climb to attract another 18 percent of the voting electorate.

The Displacement Coalition joins the battle

In advance of the Monday budget meeting, the Seattle Displacement Coalition, led by John Fox, issued a breakdown of Nickels' financial support for Vulcan's South Lake Union development.

The City of Seattle 2009 budget, the Coalition's document alleges, contains $129 million for Vulcan's South Lake Union plans, with five-year Capital Improvement Plan costs topping $862 million. (The numbers come from city documents.) The Mercer Corridor's full phase-one costs, the document asserts, now total $230 million, including the $30 million on the table Monday.

The Coalition's statement closed by echoing the Real Change breakfast call for support of the Licata plan and defeat of Drago's.

There is an old political rule applying to executive elected officials at all levels: Those who seek third terms usually are defeated. Even the most popular governors, mayors, county executives, and others with executive responsibility invariably lose majority support by the end of their second terms. The usual advice to such officials: Don't try for a third term.

Will Nickels heed that advice? Is he hoping for an Obama administration appointment to rescue him from his mayorship? Or will he keep collecting political money toward a third-term candidacy and, then, declare it?

City Council members with any knowledge of political precedent will begin taking their distance from a mayor in such historic jeopardy. Their votes Monday on the Mercer Project will be telling.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.