It's a tough job trying to give the city's public/private partnerships that stamp of respectability. Ask the members of the city's Public/Private Partnership Task Force, which held yet another meeting last Tuesday in an attempt to calm their group's two dissidents. Of course, as last Tuesday was election day, and one of the doubters (Daniel Norton) was a candidate for City Council and the other (Brian Livingston) the director of the city's largest independent campaign expenditure group, neither showed up. It's probably just as well, as their popularity among fellow group members was at an all-time low, due both to the last-minute timing of their objections and suspicions that election politics might have played a role in the pair's complaints.
Whatever their motivations, Livingston and Norton probably did the public a favor by griping, as the result was to water down the task force's formerly specific recommendations on a proposed review panel to scrutinize public/private partnerships. When the City Council gets their report later this month, now they'll have to debate the issue of who should be on the review panel and how it should be appointed. Otherwise, they could simply rubber-stamp the task force's recommendation without any significant debate.
Whatever form the review committee takes, the major benefit of reviewing public/private partnerships comes from letting the public know they're in the works, providing some access to information on the potential benefits and costs, and seeing if they pass the smell test. The more egregious aspects of rip-offs such as the Pacific Place Garage purchase and the Freeway Park Garage giveaway (funny how parking structures bring out the worst in human nature) might have nixed both deals if revealed before the contracts were. Protocols such as those provided by the task force would also give the city the fascinating yet ultimately futile exercise of trying to find any public benefit in the ridiculous multi-government giveaway to Immunex Corporation. That's the one in which the rich private company got cheap land and several million dollars in street improvements based simply on a threat that they might move to the suburbs.
Sure, there are good examples of public/private partnerships, but let's not forget most of those have been small-scale projects involving minor public investment; it's the big-money deals that have been the real dogs.
A confidence builder
The job of building up public confidence in public/private partnerships just got tougher. Chuck DePew, the deputy director of the city's Office of Economic Development, is quitting to take a job with the National Development Council. Yes, DePew's the guy who wrote the infamous memo to City Council members telling them what and what not to say when discussing a proposed $24 million federal loan guarantee for the Pacific Place project. Yes, NDC is the nonprofit corporation whose local agent John Finke was criticized by city's ethics regulators for cutting a private deal with Pacific Place developers while he was supposedly representing the city's interests. No problem, says DePew, who notes that city ethics regulations prohibit him from working on any deals with Seattle for a year after leaving city employment. Well, that takes care of his financial future, but the public/private partnership boosters he leaves behind in city government must be feeling a little stung. Maybe they can appoint another task force.
The return of the white guy
One refreshing trend during the last two City Council elections has been the disappearance of the traditional racial seats. Although never listed on the ballot or your council member's business card, Seattle tradition dictated that one seat on the council was reserved for an African American and another for an Asian American—a distribution roughly equal to these racial minorities' representation in the city's total population.
In 1991, with three Asian women (including eventual winner Martha Choe) and a white man lined up to contend for the seat of the retiring Dolores Sibonga, a local Asian community newspaper held a debate focusing on the race. Only the three Asian candidates received invitations to speak.
Sam Smith, the council's first black member, was defeated by another African American, Sherry Harris, in 1991. She was then defeated by a third black, John Manning, in 1995. He resigned the following year and was replaced by Richard McIver, now the council's only African American member.
The racial seats seemed an outdated concept in 1996, when the election of Charlie Chong gave the council a lineup of four racial minority members and not a single white guy. But, three years later, Seattle appears to be facing its whitest City Council in more than a decade. In three open-seat council races, each matching a candidate of color against a white person, conventional wisdom gives the edge to the three white candidates (Jim Compton, Heidi Wills, and Judy Nicastro). In addition, both daily newspapers printed after-election editorials indicating that they planned to endorse the full white slate. (One caveat: The Seattle Times will endorse Nicastro only after she drops this rent control nonsense and signs on to City Attorney Mark Sidran's civility campaign.) The establishment's dream team, if elected, would result in a legislative body with four white men (well, that disparity didn't last long), four white women, and one African-American man.
Unless we see at least one upset this time around, look for the Asian seat issue to return with a vengeance in the 2001 elections.