Was Mayor Schell sloughing off after just three months on the job? In April, Schell jetted out of Sea-Tac for a five-day, expenses-paid trip to Europe. He flew free, dined sumptuously, saw historic attractions, and stayed at a $600-a-night hotel. The city's first lady accompanied him. And his friends over at the Port of Seattle, where he was formerly a Port commissioner, picked up the $4,500 tab.
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But the mayor says he was hard at work, on a strategic mission to represent our interests in, well, Holland. What, you may ask, was he seeking in the Low Countries? Windmill generators for City Light? Wooden shoes for the needy? A hash bar for Fremont? No such luck.
Mayor Schell was helping an international airline launch its new service and, he says, promoting Seattle and its port in the process. In April, Northwest Airlines, in an alliance with the Dutch KLM, inaugurated nonstop Seattle-to-Amsterdam flights. Arriving in the Netherlands Tuesday, April 7, the mayor began a four-day trade schmooze with a contingent of other elected and business officials including former fellow Port commissioners Gary Grant and Clare Nordquist, airport manager Gina Marie Lindsey, political consultant Bob Gogerty, and representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, Boeing, travel agencies, and the airlines. Including spouses, 33 bigwigs took what the Port calls a "familiarization trip" that cost $71,395, broken down thusly: 19 hotel rooms, $22,350; food including formal dinners and luncheons, $28,808; and guides, translators, ground transportation, museum entrances, and gratuities for the delegation, $20,237.
The airlines picked up most of the junketeers' nearly $15,000 in airfare; the mayor's and Port commissioners' spouses bought $500 introductory-rate tickets. The Seattle Americans spent their nights at the 15th-century, 182-room Grand Amsterdam Hotel, amidst Gobelin tapestries and Jugendstil stained-glass windows. Most dined at Le Rendezvous Café (offering Dutch cuisine in a city known for little of it) and at the Amstel Hotel with local government, airline, and diplomatic officials. Many rode a canal boat with the lord mayor of Amsterdam and visited the residence of the governor of Limburg. In a kind of bureaucratic foreign exchange, a similar party of Dutch officials was in Seattle at the same time, sampling life along Puget Sound on their government's and the airline's tabs. A good time appears to have been had by all.
BUT WHY WAS THE EMERALD CITY'S new mayor playing Port ambassador to Holland? He was still fuming at the City Council's rejection of his plan to sell Key Tower and build a civic campus, just hours before he departed for Europe, and the city fire department's rank and file were threatening revolt against their chief. Didn't Schell have things to do around the office?
"Mayor Schell," says one of his press aides, Victoria Schoenburg, "went to the Netherlands because he felt it appropriate to continue the tradition of former mayors to build relationships with other international trading centers." As she and Port spokesperson Dan Leach explain it—and it's doubtless only coincidence that they use almost the exact same words in their separate e-mail responses—the mission's goal was to promote trade and tourism through new contacts, discuss ways to encourage trade with American diplomats in the country, and generally promote the new air service. They both say—again in tandem—that studies show international direct air connections can be worth $100 million a year to a regional economy.
Of course, said air connection was already established. But the mayor was still needed to talk Port issues with the Dutch, says Schoenburg. "Foreign dignitaries give much more weight to a delegation led by an elected official than one led by a business person," she maintains.
Port critic David Ortman shakes his head at that reasoning. "If this was a true city function," says Ortman, who ran for the commission last year, "the city should pay for it." It was only last year, in January and May, that Schell was winging off to Belfast and then Geneva as a Port commissioner, at a cost of $8,500. Now, says Ortman, "dipping back into the Port budget suggests the mayor has forgotten who he represents. As a Port commissioner he thought he was mayor. Now as mayor he apparently thinks he's a Port commissioner."
But the spokespeople insist the Holland trek was a good deal for taxpayers. The trip didn't cost the city anything, Schoenburg says, since the Port (which is partly supported by property taxes) paid for it. And the Port says the trip didn't cost anything since the airlines paid for much of it. In Leach's words, the Port's $71,000 share "did not come from taxpayers. It came from the [Port's] aviation-marketing budget, which is funded by fees on the airlines and from rent airlines and other businesses pay at the airport."
Another Port watchdog, Benella Caminiti, wonders why they don't just admit everyone got a holiday on the taxpayer. "What do they think, expense funds are magic money that drops from the sky?" Caminiti asks. She notes that all Port funds are collected and spent on behalf of the public—who contribute $35 million annually to the Port. "I'm also thinking, Holland, why Holland?" Caminiti adds. "Dutch treat?"
Related Links and information:
Port of Seattle site
Paul Schell's page