Our new council: Get used to it

After seeing a stunning six open seats contested in the last two City Council elections, Seattle voters had better get used to seeing something else—the same damn Council members.

Just when every local group seems to be getting their electoral strategy together, events have conspired to all but cancel future municipal elections. A quick review: Only two members of the current council—Margaret Pageler and Jan Drago—have even served a single term in office. The recently reelected Pageler is set for another four years; even if Drago steps down after completing her second term in 2001, that's still only one open seat up for grabs.

What's more, if Mayor Paul Schell turns out to be the one-term mayor his friends at The Seattle Times wanted, the battle for his job would draw most of the press coverage, making the next city election a very poor time to challenge an incumbent office-holder.

The good news is that the votes are there to get a lot of things accomplished. Drago is the last member left of the solid 1990s bloc that supported Norm Rice's downtown ber alles city spending strategy. Four council members (Nick Licata, Richard Conlin, Peter Steinbrueck, and council member-elect Judy Nicastro) have since been elected despite touting their progressive credentials. New guy Jim Compton is trying to position himself as a thoughtful independent.

Throw in Pageler (conservative on money issues), Richard McIver (liberal on social issues), and Heidi Wills, the other council member-elect, and you've got the potential for a lot of 6-3 and 5-4 splits.

This seems like a boost for the Schell administration, as it renders any vote winnable. Of course, given the mayor's council relations so far, it also gives the big guy an unlimited number of chances to blow it. For all the public gloating from Schell aides over the departure of mayoral critics Sue Donaldson and Tina Podlodowski, it should be noted that neither had significant philosophical differences with the mayor and both endorsed him two years ago. That Schell managed to so thoroughly alienate two potential supporters doesn't bode well for a happy future.

The mayor could find new friends among the trio of newcomers. Wills comes to the council from the office of Schell's major ally, County Executive Ron Sims. She was also elected with the support of many of the same deep-pockets givers who supported the mayor in 1997. Compton was matched against fiery populist Dawn Mason, so it's no surprise he also drew the backing of the status quo gang. At best, renters' rights advocate Nicastro and developer Schell seem ill-matched, and the mayor hasn't shown any ability to rise to interpersonal challenges.

The problem isn't Schell's occasional blow-ups (like his thankfully aborted physical confrontation with Sheriff Dave Reichert); it's his habit of not talking to council members for long periods, then shipping down proposed legislation they've heard nothing about. The council's response has been to return the favor, most notably by summarily rewriting Schell's budget proposals.

On the other hand, Seattle's political activists have little experience at stringing council votes together and are too quick to publicly condemn their political opponents after a loss. Even if the mayor stumbles in his council relations, it's certainly possible nobody will be prepared to take advantage of the slip.

So, Seattle, remember these names: Compton, Conlin, Drago, Licata, McIver, Nicastro, Pageler, Steinbrueck, Wills. That's the starting lineup at City Hall for the foreseeable future.

The Schell report

Having just asserted that the mayor does not play well with others, it can still be argued that his midterm grades are impressive.

The developer/mayor is moving forward on construction plans for the new downtown library (architectural curio though it may be) and the massive Civic Center (can't we just call it "City Hall"?).

This fall, city voters approved a ballot issue funding repairs to the Seattle Center Opera House and another round of community center construction. A citizens' committee is working to create a palatable proposal to fund regional amenities such as the zoo and the aquarium. And, given the passage of tax-cutting Initiative 695, the legislature may finally be more amenable to local option taxes, like the increased local gas tax proposal Schell has pushed.

Subtract public embarrassments like the WTO Tear Gas Festival and the aborted Seattle Center Millennium Celebration and the mayor seems well-set at the halfway point.

In full retreat

Everybody knows what a "retreat" is—that's when the boss rents a cabin and you're all coerced into showing up and discussing your goals for the next year.

Although the business world may be sold on these informal off-site brainstorming sessions, some activists aren't sure the concept is a good fit for elected officials. The Seattle Community Council Federation is especially unhappy with the news that the City Council is planning to relocate to LaConner in late January for its annual retreat. In a four-page letter to council members, federation co-presidents Rick Barrett and Stephen Lundgren note that off-site retreats put significant policy discussions and briefings out of public earshot. The council has traditionally done a poor job of recording retreat proceedings for public review. Beyond that, the city's charter specifically prohibits off-site meetings of the full council.

Still, it's hard to cheer the federation's counterproposal of simply holding retreats in the council chambers. While this would enable spectators to attend and allow for taping of the sessions, it would kill any hope for an informal atmosphere. Maybe it's simply time to retire the retreat.

 
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