A TASK FORCE can be a politician's best friend—sometimes.
Not so in post-Mardi Gras Seattle, where Mayor Paul Schell's effort to create a three-panel study of the violent end to the February festival has filled City Hall with unwanted controversy.
The mayor couldn't have picked a worse time for his latest political misstep: Even as the city's embattled chief executive was formally kicking off his campaign for re-election, he was getting raked over the coals on newspaper editorial pages over the news that some meetings of the three Mardi Gras task forces will be closed to the public.
Further reinforcing Schell's public image as the guy with a perpetual rain cloud hovering over his head, the mayor somehow managed to share his pain with the six members of the City Council drafted as task force members. By the end of the week, three council members had resigned their task force positions—and two of those staying were doing so only because their task forces had agreed to at least some open meetings.
Schell's most recent troubles began when he allowed task force members to vote on whether their meetings should be open or closed to the public. Members of two of the three task forces immediately called for closed meetings in order to facilitate frank and open discussion. Bif Brigman, a Pioneer Square businessman and a task force member, says participants want to discuss the task forces' issues openly, without worrying how their comments might sound when reduced to a media "sound bite."
But the priorities of private citizens and public officials are very different. The political reality is that City Council members simply can't justify sitting on any panel that holds closed meetings, says City Council member Nick Licata, something a fellow elected official such as the mayor should have realized.
What's more, council members didn't have any say over which panel they would serve on, or even if they wanted to participate in the process at all, adds Licata. The mayor's March 28 announcement of the task force process caught him by surprise. "I had no idea about these," he says. "All I got was a message from [City Council President] Margaret Pageler on my answering machine."
Even council member Jan Drago, generally a Schell ally, couldn't take the heat and bailed out of her task force. Despite lobbying from both the mayor and Drago, the Mardi Gras panel she had agreed to chair voted last week to keep its meetings closed, resulting in a stinging April 18 Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial criticizing both the closed meetings and Drago's participation in the process. Later that day, Drago faced the media (and several curious colleagues) in council chambers to officially resign her position as chair of the Pioneer Square Neighborhood Task Force.
Some council members would now like to see the mayor step in and require the meetings to be open, but, since he has already allowed task force members to vote on the issue, this tactic would probably just cause more trouble. Deputy Mayor Maud Daudon says the mayor didn't issue an up-front mandate for open meetings, in part to give the panels more autonomy from City Hall.
It's doubly ironic that a process first criticized as too mild a recipe for change has landed Schell in the soup again. One of his two chief rivals, City Attorney Mark Sidran, immediately lampooned Schell as a weak leader whose only response to major events such as Mardi Gras is to form "a task force or three."
However, Schell's original decision wasn't necessarily a bad one. Forming a task force is a good response to a crisis, says political consultant Cathy Allen. "You create a process so that—at least while you try to figure out how it never happens again—you can more or less buy time."
But buying time didn't help the mayor, who can't seem to manage the aftermath of a crisis let alone the crises themselves. Licata points out that the furor over the task forces could have been avoided simply by better planning in the mayor's office. "It's amazing what the mayor can accomplish without even trying," says Licata. "There was no direction to these things—they were just slapped together. This is just giving government a black eye."