Team Schell

The mayor uses government to aid his re-election bid.

BEHOLD THE POWER of incumbency!

Mayor Paul Schell is doing a good job of using his office to help himself get reelected. Much of his staff's activity in the last few months has drawn scrutiny from his critics, and two actions have resulted in ethics complaints.

The most obvious advantage of incumbency is a ready-made donor base: city employees. The re-election campaign for Schell has received $16,701 in donations from city employees. All but one of the mayor's department heads have ponied up at least $100; more than half have contributed the maximum allowed $600.

In contrast, one of Schell's major opponents, King County Council member Greg Nickels, has received just $3,392 in donations from city of Seattle employees, while the other, City Attorney Mark Sidran, has just one recorded donation from a city employee—a $600 check from a Seattle cop.

Of course, Schell's flood of donations from top city employees is not illegal and has a very logical impetus—job security. Nickels has pledged to do some housecleaning among Schell's top administrators, and Sidran has also given indications that he plans to bring in his own people if elected.

The Schell department heads giving the maximum $600 donation are Ken Bounds (parks), Denna Cline (strategic planning), Jim Diers (neighborhoods), Diana Gale (water and solid waste), Rick Krochalis (land use), and Gary Zarker (City Light).

Schell's re-election chances have also been boosted by the new attentiveness to press and public relations shown during the incumbent's last year in office. Press conferences, official ceremonies, and public appearances by the mayor have mushroomed as his tough primary challenge approaches.

In May, eyebrows were raised when the city distributed 136,500 copies of a four-page neighborhood planning results report in community newspapers— a document that prominently featured the signatures of Schell and City Council member Richard Conlin (who is also seeking re-election).

In June, local public affairs firm Cocker Fennessy completed a $6,500 report on how the mayor's office could improve its relationship with the local media, which drew an ethics complaint from a citizen who considered this a campaign-related expense (and chuckles from news hounds that wondered why the notoriously media-clumsy Schell administration waited three and a half years to seek professional help). City ethics regulators did not sustain the complaint, finding that Cocker Fennessy's work "did not involve image-building for the mayor."

The second ethics complaint over the mixing of electioneering and government concerned a half-page city ad marking Asian-American Heritage Month that appeared in the May 26, 2001, issue of the Northwest Asian Weekly. The ad included a photograph of Schell and the statement "Ad sponsored by the Personnel Department and the Mayor's Office." An in- vestigation showed that the Personnel Department actually picked up the full cost of the ad. Although ethics regulators found the ad violated a general policy that officeholders not sponsor such advertisements in the calendar year they are seeking re-election, they also termed the violation "inadvertent and minor" and dismissed the complaint.

The city's ethics office also requested that Schell remove city employees from the distribution list for his privately funded "Schellmail" e-mail newsletter. Although this e-mail newsletter was founded as a way for the mayor to make informal public statements on pressing city issues, it has recently included campaign updates.

Schell campaign spokesperson Victoria Schoenburg notes that the ruling that resulted in the purging of city employee addresses from the "Schellmail" list was actually requested by the campaign itself. She adds that, although a candidate for office, Schell is still the mayor and therefore obliged to communicate with the public.

"Under Paul's administration, the city is doing a lot—doing a lot with neighborhood plans, doing a lot with transportation," she says. "It's the city's job to keep citizens informed of that, so that's what those pieces are about."

Well, nobody could accuse the guy of trying to hide from his record. Go to his campaign Web site (www.mayorschell.com) and click on the Seattle map emblazoned "See What Mayor Schell's Done for Your Neighborhood" to find an exhaustive list of neighborhood matching fund grants, parks projects, and other city initiatives.

While there's nothing wrong with that, his opponents remain a bit miffed about the street signs labeling streets whose stoplights have been synchronized (a major feature of Schell's transportation plan) and City Light mailing fluorescent lightbulbs to consumers under the mayor's signature. "I can't send lightbulbs to every house," grumbles Nickels.

Sidran spokesman Michael Grossman points out that Schell gets not only the advantages of incumbency but the drawbacks as well. "It's a double-edged sword," he says. "Sure the mayor can take contributions from the people he's provided jobs for, but the flip side is the mayor also has to take responsibility for things like sitting on the Sound Transit board. [That project] is now a billion dollars over budget, three years late, and spending millions on lawyers and lobbyists."

OK, we get your point. Maybe being an incumbent isn't everything it's cracked up to be.

jbush@seattleweekly.com

 
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