City Council: Does process still outrank product?

Seattle's council came to consensus around 17 "priorities." It's more instructive to listen to each of the council members talk about what could happen in the coming year.
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Council member Richard Conlin. (City of Seattle)

Seattle's council came to consensus around 17 "priorities." It's more instructive to listen to each of the council members talk about what could happen in the coming year.

Compared to the skeleton crew that showed up for Mayor McGinn'ꀙs non-specific State of the City address, the Seattle City Council packed the room for its own take on how to solve some of Seattle'ꀙs biggest problems. The political theater shows that the council has some newly discovered political chops, but, alas, in some cases council members seem loathe to give up on that old Seattle security blanket: process.

There was a dissonance just under the surface that will be tested under the pressure of the usual executive versus legislative battles. There was a healthy helping of optimism that Seattle can solve the world'ꀙs problems, while the council rather casually passed over the need to provide more efficient municipal services and minimize costs to residents and businesses. The atmosphere was positive in the packed chambers, with hardly a mention of the $50 million deficit in the nearly billion dollar general fund.

It was instructive to hear each councilmember speak about the work they will do over the coming year and what issues they care about — far more interesting than the online outline of priorities. Priorities ranged from transportation, public safety, the economy and jobs, and the environment. There was much to like and some cautionary signals about the cost, reach, and priorities of local government. As the year progresses and the council does its work, my hope is that some of the more global and aspirational instincts will be tempered by common sense and an understanding of the core business of municipal government.

Here are some of the issues that will drive the city government agenda this year, as explained by the members of the council:

Tim Burgess spoke about passing the Families and Education Levy this year and the effort to hire a new police chief. He also followed up with action, proposing a package of services and sanctions to address street crime and livability issues. It looks as though he has done his work in bringing in law enforcement, business leaders, and homeless service providers in developing his plan. There will be bumps in the road, but this focus fits nicely with the core responsibility of local government to provide safe streets.

Council President Richard Conlin spoke of the need to get the economy going and create jobs. He stated that the Office for Economic Development needs to be re-organized. OED has been in an almost constant re-organization for as long as anyone can remember. It's hard to imagine how this will impact the larger economy, but it gives people inside government the opportunity for more self-examination.

He mentioned providing tax credits to make it more attractive for small businesses to hire people. This idea is being picked up by the state and federal government as well and it may help — it certainly can't hurt! But Mayor Mike McGinn's hint that he might want to reinstate the employee head tax sends another confusing signal to the business community.

Other ideas from Conlin included a "buy local" campaign, training for green jobs, and creating an economic development commission. Presumably, the commission would be staffed by OED and the final report will show that the best way to create a positive business climate is to invest in public infrastructure, maintain clean and safe streets, and keep costs low. Admittedly, this is not an easy task in this economic environment.

Jean Godden spoke of attracting new businesses, keeping NOAA in Seattle, protecting human services from the budget ax, and moving forward on the waterfront with the tunnel replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Tom Rasmussen advocated investing in our transportation infrastructure and finally moving forward on the key projects: the Alaskan Way Viaduct and seawall replacement project, the Mercer project, and the replacement of the Highway 520 floating bridge. These investments put people to work, build lasting value, and even provide the state's ailing operations fund with sales tax revenue.

He also proposed creating a freight advisory board. While this attention to freight mobility is welcomed and appreciated, there is really no need to spend staff time and therefore tax money on creating a new board. There are already a number of boards in existence and numerous studies. The Puget Sound Regional Council'ꀙs Regional Freight Mobility Roundtable is a good place to start.

Bruce Harrell had some good ideas on how to deliver a better product to ratepayers. Chief among them is a proposal to develop a smart electric grid, in which two-way communication between provider and user creates the ability to maximize efficiency. We will need this with the expected proliferation of electric and hybrid vehicles. You certainly don't want everyone charging up at the same time.

The creation of a rate stabilization fund is a time-tested and oft-failed effort. Just like a rainy day fund, temptation and need often trumps virtue. But it's still a worthwhile effort.

Other ideas from Harrell feel more like process over product: for instance, the creation of a nine-member board to advise the council on City Light — don't we already have nine council members? (Harrell also wants to recreate a City Light Advisory Committee. An earlier version of this story, noting the apparently active city web site for the committee, questioned that idea.)

Nick Licata pledged to fund the pedestrian-master plan, here putting product ahead of process. Although, as often happens, the master-plan process didn't address how to pay for all the good ideas. Creating a cultural overlay district is interesting and has the potential to become a part of the city's arts and culture fabric. And Licata's pointing out the need to hire an excellent new director of the Office of Housing is a signal to the mayor that keeping the office is a vote-counted council priority.

Sally Clark's agenda is a mix of process and product. We can all be grateful that Seattle Children's Hospital expansion appears to be coming to resolution, and Clark deserves credit for taking it on.

I also had one of those "only in Seattle" moments when Clark opened her talk about the low-rise multi-family code and South Downtown planning by mentioning her recent trip to Cuba.

Next up was Mike O'Brien, whose focus this year will be on defining "carbon neutrality" and figuring out how to get there. Almost immediately Mayor McGinn, O'Brien's ally, conveniently pounced on the seeming contradiction that you can't build roads (tunnel, 520), as the council majority wants, if you want to be carbon neutral. But those electric and hybrid vehicles will still need roads, tunnels, and bridges. This will be an interesting year as the neutrality parade comes to a community center near you. There will be lots of carbon dioxide molecules released in those meetings.

And finally, Sally Bagshaw pronounced that this council will be the "get-it-done gang." She voiced support for transforming the downtown waterfront and following through on the other major infrastructure projects. She also touched on something that no one else did: working with our regional partners. She has already reached out to the county, state, port, and school district, and she appears willing to do the hard work necessary to build those relationships. This is process that leads to product.

A strong and assertive council is a good thing, and there are smart people here who want to do the right things for Seattle. They will have to battle against the impulse to default to government process and programs as the only solutions to the challenges we face. They must also keep their feet on the ground and understand that most taxpayers don't need or want to attend countless meetings, but would prefer that their elected representatives act as good and responsible stewards of their community and their taxes. Utility rates, property taxes, and other fees do impact people as they try to build there lives here. Most people would prefer that those tax dollars go toward buying product, not more Seattle process.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.