Seattle's City Hall: Get the hook!

Two recent votes, committing to big transportation projects without answering the tough questions, convince one observer that 2009 is a fine time to send packing the City Council and Mayor Nickels.
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SLUT in SLU near Hooters. (Chuck Taylor)

Two recent votes, committing to big transportation projects without answering the tough questions, convince one observer that 2009 is a fine time to send packing the City Council and Mayor Nickels.

A country seeking change has put Barack Obama in the presidency. It is more than high time that we opt for similar change in Seattle.

Much has been made of the Seattle Mariners' cost inefficiency, parlaying a nearly $120-million 2008 player payroll into the second-worst record in the major leagues. The Mariners' cost inefficiency is topped locally only by the Seattle City Council, whose pay of $104,000 makes it second-highest paid in the country (after Los Angeles) and surely the weakest in any American big city.

A couple weeks back, I was reminded of this as I sat through a ridiculous council meeting in which, by an 8-1 vote (only Nick Licata dissenting), that body overrode its own earlier resolution requiring that Mayor Greg Nickels provide basic financial and other information before moving forward with the Mercer Project. That project is intended to reconfigure traffic patterns in the notorious Mercer Mess off I-5 to conform to the development plans of Vulcan's South Lake Union commercial and residential real estate development. The information was not provided but the council gave the go-ahead anyway to spending of $30 million toward the $230 million project. The project is opposed by community groups in Queen Anne, Magnolia, Interbay, Fremont, and Ballard because, according to the City's own traffic study, it would not ease present congestion in the area but would instead make travel more difficult for commercial and commuter traffic.

Councilwoman Jan Drago, as usual, served as Vulcan's lead agent on the project (as she had, earlier, on behalf of the Allentown Trolley from Westlake Center to South Lake Union). Only Licata asked that the council stick by its earlier position and require facts from Mayor Nickels before approving the Mercer money. Drago and other council members suggested the data could be supplied by Jan. 15 — although there is nothing now to require Nickels to do so— and that the $30-million start should be authorized because federal public-works money conceivably could be forthcoming for the project. (There is no factual basis at this point for that assertion). Councilman Richard McIver had been expected to vote with Licata but, at last minute, voted "yes" on the basis, as he put it, that "it looks as if we are going to approve this so I guess I will vote for it."

The Mercer Project has been discussed over many months within the council but Councilman Bruce Harrell, in his remarks, exhibited general ignorance of it and voted yes for no apparent reason. ("Didn't this guy say he used to run a law firm?" my seatmate asked, "how could he be so ignorant of such a major issue?"). Council President Richard Conlin, who earlier had voted for submission of the required data, reversed himself with accompanying comments to the effect that big cities should get used to dense traffic. Councilman Tom Rasmussen asked good questions but, in the end, also voted yes. Councilwoman Sally Clark voted procedurally with Licata in asking that the required data be provided but, in the end, voted to go forward without it. Councilmembers Jean Godden and Tim Burgess asked no relevant questions but also reversed themselves and voted to give Nickels the money.

John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition declared after the vote that "at no time in 30 years of our observation of city politics have we seen such a gulf between the citizens and our politicians on the critical issues."

Then, this past Tuesday, they did it again. Spearheaded again by Drago, the council's transportation committee voted, 4-2 (Licata and McIver dissenting), to support development of a streetcar system connecting neighborhoods to downtown and to buses, ferries, and trains. Such a system would be extended from the present Allentown trolley line and, perhaps, a revived Alaskan Way line. It would include lines in Ballard and the University District. Price tag: $600 million.

Again, there were lots of difficult, unanswered questions. Where would construction and operating money come from? Would the streetcar system be a more efficient use of public money than expansion of present bus transit service? (That is, would it carry more people to more destinations for less money than buses?). There were no answers to those questions. Just a go-ahead for the spending of $600 million for a vague streetcar idea.

The proposal will go to a vote by the full council perhaps as early as next week. Innumerable studies have indicated that streetcars would carry fewer passengers more slowly and expensively to their destinations than buses do. Who in Seattle is asking for them, beside those who would profit from them and their foils on the council?

The Mercer Project exemplifies the carelessness and irresponsiblity of the council in allowing Nickels to spend major public money without providing minimal information that would be requested in advance of a routine home repair. The streetcar fiasco demonstrates the council's willful foolishness — perhaps it is not willful but merely silly, sloppy thinking — in pushing forward another expensive transportation-related project which has no rational basis behind it. Licata, speaking charitably, characterized the transportation committee vote as being based on "misguided good intentions."

This is the same council that allowed Nickels to spend highway, bridge, and road maintenance monies on other things for several years and then signed onto a ballot measure socking citizens with extra taxes to pay for maintenance work that should have been included in the regular city budget. It recently backed ballot measures authorizing new taxes for Seattle Public Market and city parks — more purposes which should have been included in the regular budget.

What are these people thinking? Most of them, I have concluded, are not thinking. So what should be done? Mayor Nickels deserves strong opposition for mayor in 2009. Four council seats are to be contested, with incumbents Drago and McIver both thought unlikely to seek reelection. (If Drago does run, she deserves to be defeated one-sidedly.) Conlin has discussed for several months the possibility of a mayoral candidacy, although recently indicating he was finding great satisfaction in his council role. He comes across as moderate and eager-to-please but keeps making truly dumb proposals, such as that for the streetcar system. He also should be replaced. Licata (whose seat is also up next year) has been a constructive councilmember with some sense of the Seattle community's greater good. That was also true of Peter Steinbrueck when he was on the council. Either Licata or Steinbrueck should challenge Nickels in 2009. If neither does, some other substantive and serious person should do so.

A state legislative candidate told me recently that, in his extensive canvass of his district, he found a huge majority of his constituents wanting Nickels gone — and most of the council sent packing, too. I agree. These people are the most incompetent I have seen over 50 years' observation of executive and legislative bodies at federal, state, and local level. They appear not to recognize that they are supposed to give critical scurtiny, not rubber-stamp approval, to the mayor's spending and other proposals. Moreover, they clearly do not recognize the financial and economic squeeze presently besetting both the city and its taxpayers. To borrow a phrase from 19th century Virginia Sen. John Randolph, their performance "stinks like a mackeral in the moonlight." If you care about the city, step forward and run for the council next year.


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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