THE PEOPLE WHO like Tim Ceis, Seattle's new deputy mayor, call him "a kneecapper," "a hatchet man," "Mr. Tough Guy," "a consigliere," and "the classic bad cop." His official nickname is "The Shark."
Ceis' appointment last week is the latest in a series of signals sent by Mayor-elect Greg Nickels that "the Seattle way" evidently does not entail an acceptance of the status quo at City Hall. Nickels is clearly determined to bring change to Seattle city government. The buzz over Ceis' appointment epitomizes the debate on whether those changes represent the migration of the nasty power politics of the King County Courthouse (Ceis was Nickels' aide on the King County Council from 1988 to 1992 and most recently he was King County Executive Ron Sims' chief of staff) or a rightful assertion of mayoral authority that has been lacking under Mayor Paul Schell.
The Nickels' camp believes Schell was wrong to employ two deputy mayors. Nickels points out that successful executives from former President Clinton to Gov. Gary Locke and Sims have "one point of contact." Ceis says, "When you have multiple deputies, it diffuses the authority of the mayor. Greg wants to reassert the mayor's strong role."
Who is the mayor asserting his authority over? First off, the 10,000 employees of city government. These workers are divided into 21 departments and offices that run everything from the police and fire departments to Seattle City Light to the Seattle Arts Commission. Nickels, of course, cannot manage 10,000 people directly, so he will do it through directors. His first signal to the current directors was asking for letters of resignation from each (see News Clips, "Cleaning House?" Dec. 13). The request shocked City Hall.
Last Thursday, Nickels canned the Department of Neighborhoods' Jim Diers; Design, Construction, and Land Use's Rick Krochalis; Strategic Planning's Denna Cline; and Intergovernmental Affairs' Cliff Traisman. Nickels now is deciding which other directors to fire, and even if he doesn't chop off any more heads, he has sent a message. Ceis says there will be "strong accountability between the mayor and the directors. You won't get people shopping around for decisions."
As if asserting authority over the departments wasn't enough, Nickels also has to deal with a cranky bunch of legislators: the Seattle City Council. The nine council members are elected citywide, and therefore often see themselves as minimayors. Earlier this month, the sniping between the council and the new executive began when, despite Nickels' strenuous objections, the council slashed the mayor's budget by about 20 percent and increased its own. City Council member Jim Compton told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Nickels threatened "retaliation."
Ceis' critics say that's exactly what he's best at. Outgoing King County Council member Maggi Fimia (D-Shoreline) says, "Rewards and punishment" are central to Ceis' political game. Fimia frequently clashed with Ceis' county boss over everything from light rail to land-use regulations for churches. In return, she says, Ceis cut her out of his many deals and recruited candidates to run against her. "You don't want to get in his way," she says. In fact, Fimia claims the "main reason I didn't run again was so that I didn't have to deal with" Ceis' hardball politics.
She found Ceis' heavy-handedness with departments to be counterproductive and distasteful. "He doesn't get merit badges for collaborativeness. He's not into sharing power."
Ceis says Fimia personalizes political disagreements too much. He says while he doesn't eschew "tough politics, we always start with sitting down and working with people." He knows some inhabitants at City Hall are "a little concerned" about his arrival, but he thinks his reputation as a tough guy "gets overblown." He notes, "I can have a political disagreement with someone and at the end of the day still go out and have a beer with them."
If he asks you to step out in the alley afterward, though, you'd better think twice.