Mayor McGinn: Welcome to City Hall inertia!

How much latitude does a new mayor have in changing course and leadership at Seattle City Hall? Here's a road map along with some particular suggestions for a couple too-large-to-govern departments.
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Mike McGinn talks with reporters on Election Night

How much latitude does a new mayor have in changing course and leadership at Seattle City Hall? Here's a road map along with some particular suggestions for a couple too-large-to-govern departments.

One of Mayor Mike McGinn's prime duties, besides cutting ribbons and claiming how he will 'ꀜmove forward,'ꀝ will be the critical job of making sure the public gets the full effort and efficiency from the 11,000 people who work for the city. That period we are entering, when the baton of leadership is passed, is critical in this regard; it is no place for rancor or petty behavior. New mayors, no matter how well informed, need up-to-date briefings on legislation, finance, budget, and current negotiations.

Most mayoral candidates run for office because they see problems they believe they can correct. Most think about how their administration might improve how the city works. Translated, that means new mayors look to those who administer major city departments and decide whether they want new faces or reform from those already in office.

The complexity of Seattle governance is astounding and neither mayoral candidate likely had the kind of management skills necessary to make departmental changes quickly. It will take some time to gather the information needed to make the selection of good managers. As important as the new mayor is the quality of the people he gathers around him.

Seattle has, by my count, 36 city departments. Many are very-low profile or very small, and their work or effectiveness is seldom visible to the public. Some are very public. Parks has enormous exposure as does the Public Library and the Police. Some big departments, like City Light, the public takes for granted unless a tree falls on a power line and the furnace goes off or the TV screen goes blank on Sunday night football. We don'ꀙt think a lot about Seattle Public Utilities if the toilet flushes and the morning shower still works.

Some departments attract the spotlight. Seattle Transportation got lots of publicity last winter. Some say that the millions of lost wages and sales during the big snowfall helped to bring down incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels. Another, always in the news, is the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). Every time a string of ugly buildings goes up or a contractor has to wait three months to get a building permit there is grumbling about DPD. Mayor McGinn will likely give both of these city departments much of his attention.

In most cases the top jobs in departments can be changed. The mayor nominates a new person and the nominee must be approved by the City Council. In his first days in office Nickels (despite his narrow victory and lack of clear mandate) had clear ideas of who he wanted in key positions. Among a number of changes he reportedly planned to replace the very popular city librarian, Deborah Jacobs. As the story goes, and later confirmed, Nickels had to be informed that he couldn'ꀙt fire her, since state law puts the city librarian'ꀙs job under the direction of the library trustees, not the mayor, though the mayor appoints those trustees over time. Nickels was quick to give the boot to Jim Diers, an extremely popular department head with a very loyal staff. Nickels' choices sent a message that he didn'ꀙt want any department director with influence who might challenge his authority (or possibly run against him someday).

Unions control much of what a mayor can do to shake things up. Department-head jobs are unprotected, but the vast majority of city workers operate under detailed work agreements. That means that a mayor can'ꀙt do much about lower-level jobs. This is especially true regarding firefighters and the Police Guild, whose contractual details are complex, restrictive, and not even public during negotiations. Moreover, these unions are politically very active. One interesting wrinkle this year is that most of these municipal unions lined up behind Nickels and Joe Mallahan — they bet on the wrong horses, a rather rare event.

One exception to the normal political tides is Dwight Dively, head of the Department of Finance and therefore the budget czar at City Hall. Dively has survived a number of mayors, since he is considered by many the best and the brightest director of finance in the whole country. Mayor McGinn, very new to the ways of City Hall, would be a flaming idiot to send him packing. While Dively can only advise the mayor and City Council on fiscal matters, he can'ꀙt prevent them from making stupid decisions. But his advice has kept Seattle from some of the more horrendous financial collapses experienced by other cities. The truth is they can'ꀙt get along without him.

Who might McGinn pick for heading up the Department of Planning and Development or Seattle Transportation? It will be interesting to find out if the directors of these departments, Diane Sugimura and Grace Crunican, will survive. Both women manage big sprawling departments that council members only quietly question. Both of the departments have duties so broad that it'ꀙs a stretch to think one department head can keep track of all the submanagers.

Richard Conlin, the president of the City Council, believes that one small department, that of the city auditor, should be expanded to do performance audits on all city departments. The state auditor has only recently acquired the legal right to study how efficiently government operates, and Conlin believes Seattle should have the city auditor more involved in performance audits. Performance audits might show the 11,000 city workers' annual combined salary of $743 million excessive or top heavy in administrators.

SeaTrans was once called the Engineering Department, and reorganization has given SeaTrans many more duties. The department has grown to 728 people with 20 assigned services including fixing potholes, maintaining bridges, and the minor but now notorious task of snow removal. The department has coordination responsibilities for six major project areas, which include Link Light Rail, dealing with the Viaduct, and replacing the Magnolia Bridge. They also employ an independent staff of planners in other city departments.

What mystifies most citizens about Seattle Transportation is its priorities. For instance, the city has nearly a billion dollars in deferred maintenance. SeaTrans has typically proceeded with new construction projects and turned a blind eye on old-fashioned maintenance. SeaTrans, perhaps influenced by mayors' need for showy projects, has preferred to spend its money on less critical or cosmetic improvements while important maintenance is left undone for years. A natural question arises: Why would the city allow miles of much used roadway to deteriorate into wheel damaging potholes, yet find the money to replace existing street signs with new ones?

The range of pay for the top nine SeaTrans managers is $187,314 for the director, to $116,928. Council member Sally Clark commented that Crunican, the current director, has a challenging job and has to juggle vast and complex operations. There are hundreds of operations that fall into the control of SeaTrans, so the new mayor may well conclude that this department has far too many diverse jobs to be managed by one director.

DPD is another department overburdened with far too many responsibilities for one director to manage. DPD employes 409 people. The pay of the top 10 iranges from $107,522 to $157,499. DPD is responsible for the comprehensive plan, neighborhood planning, zoning, the Planning Commission, the Seattle Design Commission, the design review process, design guidelines and design standards for new 'ꀜgreen'ꀝ buildings. And that is only the design and planning division. DPD is also responsible for issuing building permits, demolition permits, sewer permits, and mapping services.

To make all this work there is an inspection division that is supposed to check every permit. The inspection division has people who check new construction while others check elevators, air compressors, and heating plants in structures. And finally, they have a compliance division that penalizes those who violate city codes for everything from the guy down the street who plays his music too loud to the structure that appears to be falling down.

All the money DPD takes in from fees and permits goes into the department's revolving fund, not back to the city'ꀙs general fund. That money stays within the department to support salaries or whatever use the director determines. Those who do zoning or write building codes thus have a job future that is dependent on the fees paid by developers.

The directors of both of these departments are so far removed from daily staff decisions that administrative 'ꀜcontrol'ꀝ is in great question. Previous mayors, for example, separated planning into its own department so conflict of interest was not an issue. Each department would seem to have greater accountability if the duties and services were divided into more logical organizational divisions.

Tall orders. But fortunately a new mayor can fix all this. Right?


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