"This has to be a ruse. The really interesting panels must start after we go back to our hotels."
NOTE PASSED AROUND THE MEDIA TABLE
Politicians have few chances to discuss issues outside the view of press and public. And these chances are getting scarcer: Two years ago activist intervention forced the Seattle City Council's formerly low-profile Monday morning briefings meetings in front of the video cameras. This year the council reluctantly agreed to videotape portions of its annual retreat, yet refused to abandon plans to hold the event in the little resort town of LaConner. Convinced that something interesting was going on up the coast, the city's hard-boiled press titans sent in the troops. What follows is the LaConner lowdown, related by a longtime City Hall observer empowered by a free car rental upgrade and a perfectly charming hotel room.
Things actually get off to a flying start on Thursday morning, as retreat facilitators conduct a trivia game using handheld voting units (rather like television remotes). Participants learn useful facts like which ex-Sonic got cut by the Phoenix Suns (Paul Westphal, and deservedly so), how many Chinese American residents the city had in 1872 (several), and the identity of Seattle's first mayor (surprise—it was Charlie Chong, in his first run for office). Pranksters on the council staff make sure that the video camera operator discreetly records the press corps' mouthiest tape-the-retreat proponents as we play with our little voting boxes.
Reporters share space at a back table with the event's only spectators—a trio of neighborhood activists: Alan Deright (Capitol Hill), Stu Weiss (Rainier Beach), and Matthew Fox (University District). There's a full house of City Hall reporters (at least the print side), including the P-I's Kery Murakami, the most resourceful of the group, who spends most of Thursday with his back to the proceedings, writing a story on his laptop computer.
As the regular program begins, the first planning snafu becomes apparent. The retreat is being held in historic Maple Hall, in part because the former site, a restaurant conference room, isn't wheelchair-accessible. Unfortunately, the new venue provides challenges for another group of disabled people—the hearing-impaired. Voices don't carry well in the high-ceilinged old theater and the council's portable public address system proves inadequate. The first two speakers are thus rendered incomprehensible and the first role-playing exercise is slow and disjointed.
At lunch, Al Deright tries unsuccessfully to get the bartender at the LaConner Brewing Co. interested in our historic visit. "Oh, the Seattle City Council," she replies patiently. "Weren't they here last week?"
Any postlunch drowsiness is exacerbated by the event's initial panel discussion. The first speaker is an Internet consultant, who proceeds to deliver a speech that: A.) Says absolutely nothing, yet B.) Reminds you she is pulling down 80 grand a year and you're still a pissant newspaper reporter. The other panel members, political consultant Don McDonough and Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Executive Director Dennis McLerran, fare a little better, but as neither possess Gov. Jesse Ventura's podium power (or his wrestling skills, for that matter), it's hard to follow the debate. A rumor spreads throughout the hall that McLerran has a sponsorship deal with the creators of the term "stakeholders" and is thus drawing a 10-cent commission every time the word appears in his speech. This report is false—he only gets a nickel.
The next panel, which features easy-to-hear veteran speechmakers King County Council member Dwight Pelz and Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel, comes across much better. Pelz is in fine form, all brash statements and wicked asides. A former state legislator, he tells the assembled group that "Seattle elects nice people to the Legislature, and Olympia is dominated by tough people." The day's final speech is a short after-dinner address by former state Senator Eugene Prince, who wows the group with his aw-shucks, "just a farmer from Whitman County" spiel and a call for bipartisanship. While it's hardly unusual for retiring legislators to proclaim the death of political compromise, it's still a bit jolting to hear the depth of Prince's disgust with the new partisan character of Olympia, a city in which he has labored for four decades.
As Prince's speech winds down, the press/citizen contingent adjourns to the tavern, then proceeds to the legislative aides' party in the LaConner Country Inn (the council members are holed up in the posher Channel Lodge). One hot party discussion topic is a recent Nicole Brodeur piece on new council members Judy Nicastro and Heidi Wills, in which the Seattle Times' columnist confides that the two new gals remind her of (get this) Laverne and Shirley. Cute perhaps, but definitely patronizing—the type of treatment male council members don't face, says the jury. Some aides depart to join a Peter Steinbrueck/Nick Licata- organized poker game. Later, the poker game itself arrives, having been bounced from the Channel Lodge for general rowdiness.
The following morning, the P-I's Murakami scores the press coup of the day. His piece on the city's proposed ban on performing animals includes a great retreat-gathered quote from Wills on the inhumanity of forcing elephants to wear "pink tutus." Coupled with a circus representative's response that animals are never forced to wear tutus of any color, the exchange draws appreciative snickers at the media table. Meanwhile, the program has gone haywire. Billed as a few short speeches followed by small group sessions, the facilitators keep introducing speakers for more than an hour. The most interesting factual presentation is by City Clerk Judith Pippin, who notes how the current council's fondness for hammering out compromises makes for significant additional work for everyone. Comparing figures from 1997 and 1999, she demonstrates how the new council produces four times as many floor amendments annually than their predecessors. "Good job, Nick," jokes Steinbrueck, as his paper-producing colleague studies the floor. A final round of small-group discussions is announced, and reporters, observers, and legislative staffers alike flee for Interstate 5. "Highlights" of the retreat are available on cable access Channel 21/28 for the curious or the sleep-deprived.
So was the retreat a bust? Actually, no. The weak programming meant there wasn't any reason for a political argument, aides from the various council offices mixed freely, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. The press, isolated at their own table with a few citizen malcontents, enjoyed the show, even as they panicked about having very little to write about. By late Thursday afternoon, many of the council staffers were emulating their media guests by clustering at the back tables and cracking jokes about the speakers (with perennial delinquent Richard McIver among the most egregious offenders).
Maybe some taxpayers don't think they got their money's worth from the LaConner jaunt, but this isn't an event that could have been held in council chambers. And if there were any secret, substantial discussions going on in LaConner, they were kept very secret indeed.