Politics: The snow storm that won't end

Seattle's blown snowstorm response has revived as a major political issue. It could have been forgotten already, but facts are stubborn things (and it's an election year).
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This snow just won't melt away.

Seattle's blown snowstorm response has revived as a major political issue. It could have been forgotten already, but facts are stubborn things (and it's an election year).

On KUOW's "Weekday," last Friday, we discussed the mayor's snow problem (my fellow panelists were Joel Connelly of Seattlepi.com and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times. People are stirred up over the Times' story that was the result of looking over thousands of public documents related to the storm response. The conclusion was that the two Seattle Department of Transportation staffers charged with managing the storm were inexperienced, that the city often didn't use all its snow plows, and that some areas appeared to get favorable treatment, notably the Admiralty area of West Seattle where Mayor Greg Nickels lives, as does his deputy mayor, Tim "the Shark" Ceis. In short, the Times concluded the snow response was "botched."

Some complain this is either all rehash or just an extension of Seattleites whining. One theory: Seattle is full of newcomers who expect East Coast or Midwestern levels of plowing during storms whereas natives know that such storms are rare and the best thing to do is just sit tight for a few days until it melts. My take is that hilly Seattle will never have the perfect response, but that the city did under-perform on major streets. I drove an all-wheel drive Subaru down Eastlake in conditions that were really outrageous, with the unplowed snowing forming hazardous frozen ruts. KUOW host Marcie Sillman described her local arterial as something one might have encountered at Leningrad. Everyone has their own story.

I also thought the system of prioritizing some plowing by the order of citizen complaints was silly. Such priorities should be set by need, and that involves knowing the neighborhoods much more intimately. I also thought King County's Metro let people down with poor communication about bus service. That wasn't the city's fault, but the street conditions also made it dicier for Metro's buses.

Nickels goofed by giving himself a gentleman's B for performance before the storm effects were fully dealt with, and that grade differed greatly from what the general public thought. The damage was political: a mayor who prides himself on practical competence was seen as having one of his major strengths revealed as a weakness. His poll numbers sank, potential mayoral opponents took a second look, the mayor promised to do better (break out the salt next time), and everyone seemed to assume the blown snow crises would be over.

The Times story gives it new life on a couple of levels. One is that Nickels has chosen to run Seattle as a Chicago-style strongman. He's not popular, but good enough to get re-elected and suck up most of the money to fund a race. But by taking so much power to himself, de-fanging the city council, demanding total loyalty from staff and appointees, centralizing control, marginalizing the neighborhoods, he's put himself in a position where the buck on everything stops with him. The one thing worse than a strongman is a strongman who fails when push comes to shove. Nickels has had some other high-profile failures, such as his waterfront tunnel scheme and his inability to get road project "stimulus" money out of Olympia for Seattle. But like the AIG bonuses, the storm seems to be the one that sticking.

Second, it suggests that the full story of the storm response wasn't told and the city council was at best under-informed or worse, mislead. They're going to take heat to get things fixed, but now they're faced with not taking what the city says at face value. An argument over sand, salt and snow plows is a credibility problem. Nickels is asking for an ethics review to determine if there was any favoritism in the snowplowing, but the possibility of finding a smoking cell phone call ordering plows to the mayor's house is certainly not the whole focus of the outrage.

Since the current make-up of the council is pretty Nickels-friendly, this puts them in a spot. They might rather the problem fade with the springtime. The council is stocked with potential challengers to the mayor who have taken a pass on running against him in 2009: Nick Licata, Richard Conlin, Tim Burgess. Others have been sniffing around, but no serious candidate has yet jumped into the race. But even if they don't run, the onus now falls on them to hold the mayor and city staff accountable. Nickels owned the snowstorm response, now the council owns fixing what was broken. Joel Connelly predicts more hot air from the council, a pretty safe guess, but they'd be foolish to leave it at that. They need to follow the Times' and investigate. I'm sure there are some unemployed P-I reporters who would be happy to do it on a freelance basis — no need for expensive consultants.

Tim Burgess, who many have high hopes for as a potential mayor, declined to run against Nickels, saying in part that he pretty much agreed with him about everything. But the issues aren't always about policy: style, competence, public confidence, openness, honesty are legit as well. Burgess' response to the Times was reported this way:

"I was shocked when I read the story and wondered why we had not been told that same information," said Councilmember Tim Burgess. "It was disheartening to read ... because I guess I naively thought we were getting the full story, but obviously we were not."

One would expect a higher degree of skepticism, especially from a former cop, but hopefully the lesson is now learned. What was the Reagan policy with the old Soviet Union, "trust but verify"?

Nick Licata was more skeptical yet frustrated at the council's go-along culture. It's the kind of self-criticism the council should take to heart:

"There is not a culture of wanting to find out," Licata said, explaining why the council didn't more aggressively question the failures at a department under the mayor's purview. "We have been far too polite. At some point, you have to stop being polite. It's not just that we're not getting good information — we're not getting information at all, or we're getting the wrong information."

The the snows of December have not melted. Nor should they. If the Times findings are accurate, it looks like something screwy happened here. It may not be Nickels' fault, or it might be. How he deals with it, including the personnel issues, is on him. It's also is a new opportunity for potential Nickels opponents (on or off the council) who have another chance to assess the mayor's vulnerability. Is Nickels a snowman impervious to the change of seasons?

In many respects, the Nickels style of intimidation and my-way-or-the-highway approach to running things has brought a new kind of impoliteness to the city. Nickels ran as a consensus, "Seattle Way" kind of guy, but then redefined that to mean "his" way. The way to fight back isn't with the same tactics, but to do what Licata suggests and stop being so damn polite, to change the culture of not wanting to find out. It would help if one of the councilmembers did the least polite thing possible: challenge Nickels for re-election instead of letting him seize a third term by default.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.