Following a familiar script at city hall budget time

The City Council plays Mom, dispensing warm cookies, while the mayor is stingy old Dad. Haven't we seen this act before?

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Mayor Mike McGinn

The City Council plays Mom, dispensing warm cookies, while the mayor is stingy old Dad. Haven't we seen this act before?

On Friday, the Seattle City Council and Mayor Mike McGinn had a rare harmonious moment, congratulating each other on agreement over the 2011 budget. As usual in these fall rituals, the council was able to play Mom, comforting the various constituencies who depend on (and descend on) the government. Meanwhile, the mayor played stern Dad. Then they hugged each other, restoring family togetherness.

All this was possible thanks to, of all things, the Museum of History and Industry. Flush with cash from a state windfall in the sale of its old building, MOHAI agreed to loan, at no interest, $8.5 million to the city (repayable in two years). That money was then spread around to help bicyclists, neighborhood improvement projects, homeless, arts groups, libraries, and the like. Credit lawyer Gerry Johnson for getting all that money from the state for MOHAI, his client, and Councilmember Nick Licata for engineering the loan.

And credit also goes to Mayor McGinn. The mayor was the one who first raised the issue of capturing some of that MOHAI windfall, angering lots of folks by laying claim to the money. The council, true to its Bad Cop/Good Cop script, rushed to the defense of MOHAI and then quietly worked out the win-win deal where the city got use of the money, MOHAI played the generous benefactor, and the mayor got a black eye.

The whole budget process followed this script, with the mayor taking the point position on some tough issues — raising parking meter rates, raising parking lot taxes, imposing parking meter fees on Sundays, curtailing hours at community centers, delaying hiring of more cops, getting employees to forgo annual raises for a year — and then letting the council soften the blows slightly. Since McGinn relishes his role as the courageous truth-teller in tough times, this duet works pretty well.

Both good and bad cops benefit. A harder question is whether the citizens do. This year's budget was mostly one more year of avoiding the necessity for deeper cuts and reprioritizing programs. City Hall avoided the tough calls by raising fees, borrowing money from MOHAI, furloughs, and other devices for kicking the can down the road til next year. Credit should go to the mayor and his budget office for at least raising the issue of structural cuts and attacking some sacred cows. But so far, the rookie mayor is not a real political match for the more experienced City Council, an artful defender of the city hall status quo. Nor does City Hall seem to be getting the message about the need to cut taxes and fees in order to stimulate more business investment.

This script is a variant of some earlier routines by previous mayors. Mayor Greg Nickels (2001-2009) would usually include in his budget recommendations an item worth about $5 million that he really didn't believe in (such as the 411 phone service), so that the council could defiantly take that money and spread it around, as with the MOHAI loan this year. The council would declare victory (usually by riding to the rescue of the Libary budget) and adopt the other 99 percent of the Nickels budget.

Under Mayor Paul Schell (1997-2001) and Norm Rice (1989-1997) the bad cop was City Attorney Mark Sidran, who would make like New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and crack down on night clubs and unruly street behavior so that the council could quietly approve and publicly deplore this politically incorrect activity. The Stranger obliged by calling Sidran "Satan." A fair amount of progress was made, so long as Sidran was willing to be a punching bag. (Sidran lost a mayor's race to Nickels in 2001, and his successor in the City Attorney's office paid for his efforts to get tough on nightlife by being bounced from office last year.)

One last point, or question. One of the intriguing aspects of McGinn's political coalition (bikers, nightlifers, young people, density-and-transit partisans, and ethnic groups) is its fairly tacit appeal to fiscal conservatives. After all, his way of fighting the deep-bore waterfront tunnel is to sound the alarms about costs and cost-overruns. The mayor artfully pitches is opposition as a way of defending Seattle taxpayers from a potentially ruinous hit, as opposed to fighting cars and highways and downtown interests. Knute Berger has written about the ways McGinn, like California Gov. Jerry Brown, seeks to combine thriftiness with thoughtfulness.

Politically, that could be an avenue to broader support from Independents and even some Republicans. It's also a good way to skewer sacred cows and put taboo ideas like consolidation and merger of some department with King County on the table. I didn't see much of that this round. That's understandable given McGinn's battlefronts with the state over transportation, and his newness to the job. But if the recession continues and McGinn is able to find his political sealegs, we may find we have a much-needed "bad cop" at City Hall.


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