The city council shows some backbone

In the seawall showdown with Mayor McGinn, the council (at last) asserts itself and asks the right tough questions.
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle's crumbling seawall has raised alarms for 25 years.

In the seawall showdown with Mayor McGinn, the council (at last) asserts itself and asks the right tough questions.

By far the most promising action taken by the Seattle City Council, early in Mayor Mike McGinn's term, was its letter earlier this week to McGinn regarding his proposal of an early $241 million ballot measure to finance Elliott Bay seawall repair. Eight of the nine council members signed the letter, with only McGinn acolyte Mike O'Brien refusing to do so. (Consider O'Brien a rubber stamp for any and all McGinn initiatives.)

After eight years in which former Mayor Greg Nickels rolled over an often supine council, the council's show of strength was welcome.

The council was entirely correct in posing sensible questions about the hurriedly assembled and offered seawall proposal. McGinn did not consult or even inform transportation committee chair Tom Rasmussen before making it. Former Mayor Charles Royer questioned whether McGinn had even investigated the possibility of partial federal financing for the project.

The council letter suggested obvious steps any mayor should take before offering such a proposal. Namely, it asked that a full range of projects, and their relative priority, be offered to the council for consideration. It reminded McGinn that, last fall, the council had asked the mayor's office to assess potential funding sources for the project and, as yet, had not received the report. Only after looking at funding alternatives should the mayor and council move to a bond issue or levy, it said. The letter further pointed out that a stakeholder group, the Central Waterfront Partnership Committee, had been appointed to examine options only last November and had held only one meeting.

Hovering in the background was the unanswered question: Was this a McGinn ploy intended to further delay a deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct? McGinn asserts seawall repair and the viaduct replacement are unrelated. Most council members feel otherwise. McGinn's words and actions do make it appear that, after making tunnel opposition the signal issue of his campaign — and then reversing at last minute to say he woudl accept it, if favored by the council — he has been looking, once in office, for devices to slow or stop the tunnel after all.

There is another matter yet to rise to the surface. In a session with Crosscut writers during his campaign, McGinn stated that he intended to use ballot measures "as often as possible" — especially on issues where opinion was divided. The measures cost tax dollars to undertake (about $1 million, in the case of the seawall ballot measure) but, more importantly, could replace normal mayoral-council governance with governance-by-plebescite — with outcomes being decided by single-interest and single-issue groups with the biggest advertising budgets.

This early episode has drawn attention, as well, to the fact that McGinn appears to have not yet shifted from a campaign to governance mode. A campaign is a sprint where actions are taken short-term and often with no thought to consequences beyond election day. Governance is a four-year marathon where thinking must be longer term. The McGinn inner team presently is weighted heavily toward campaigners accustomed to short-term tactical thinking. It could benefit from addition of those with real experience in governance and accustomed to believing that actons have consequences.

We shall see how the L'Affaire Seawall plays out. I'm rooting for the council. A McGinn setback now might help him avoid bigger mistakes later.


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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