Even before he took office on Jan. 1, Mayor Greg Nickels started chucking beanballs at the Seattle City Council. And after his first 100 days on the job, he shows no signs of developing another pitch. His surprisingly confrontational and authoritative style has transformed the collaborative, congenial atmosphere at City Hall.
About half the City Council members chalk up this rough-and-tumble opening to the normal growing pains of a new administration. The other half are a good deal uneasier. They wonder if Nickels is trying to alter the balance of power in city government. For his part, Nickels insists he is merely taking back the executive authority that was lost during the reign of Paul Schell. Outside of City Hall, Nickels has focused on small ball—filling potholes, cleaning the streets, stationing tow trucks at key intersections, and so on. By successfully hitting homers in this T-ball league, Nickels hopes to restore the general public's confidence in city government so that he can launch more ambitious plans, particularly in the transportation arena.
But in order to move beyond small ball, Nickels will need to round up votes from the City Council members he has so far alienated.
I don't want to go to a strong mayor/weak council" system of government, says Seattle City Council President Peter Steinbrueck. "I don't object to stricter discipline and more accountability, but don't cut the City Council out. Don't isolate the City Council. It doesn't serve the public."
Steinbrueck and three of his eight colleagues—powerful budget chair Jan Drago, rowdy renters' advocate Judy Nicastro, and cop watcher Jim Compton—all express differing degrees of anxiety about whether Nickels is fundamentally trying to alter the balance of power in city government.
"They've ghettoized us," says Nicastro. "I wonder if it's part of a larger plan of [Nickels'] to freeze the City Council out."
Drago asks if Nickels "has a strategic plan to shift the balance of power." She adds, "It is only three months, but a lot of the tone for a term is set at the beginning. We are off to a rough start." She maintains hope for a "positive working relationship," but she also fully intends to help the council stand its ground. Compton warns, "The City Council has some hard work to do to make sure its authority as laid out in the [city] charter isn't undermined."
What has raised these council members' hackles so high? First of all, how Nickels has restricted relations between the City Council and the thousands of city employees who make up the municipal workforce.
Everyone agrees those 11,000 employees, who are in 18 departments and offices, work for the mayor. However, the previous mayor, Paul Schell, wasn't detail oriented and didn't spend a lot of time managing departments or following through on his grand schemes. So the City Council started managing the departments itself.
"There has been a vacuum over the last few years, and the City Council moved into that vacuum," observes former Mayor Wes Uhlman.
Nickels and his deputy mayor, Tim "The Shark" Ceis, put a stop to that fast. Nickels asked for a letter of resignation from all the department and office heads. While he rehired 14 out of 18, the message was clear: The department heads answer to the mayor, not the council. If that wasn't clear enough, Ceis followed up with a memo to all the department and office chiefs saying, If City Council members ask anyone in your department for anything of significance—helping to draft legislation, research, response to constituents, whatever—you check with me first. This action went far beyond a simple restoration of authority to a consolidation of power.
The result has been that the City Council is a much quieter place these days: Very little legislation is moving through the council; meetings are short or canceled. It's not just that the City Council is no longer managing the departments, but also that the information flow has been cut off.
"[Departmental] people are afraid to talk to us," says Nicastro. "The cloud of gloom is over City Hall."
"We are in limbo," says Steinbrueck. "The City Council has a greater role in setting policy than the mayor. That's in the charter. We are heavily dependent on departmental support in developing policy. It's a necessity, and it is in danger right now. We don't want to set up a parallel government, but it may be our only alternative if it's pushed too far."
Nickels is not backing off an inch. "I promised change when I got elected—personnel changes and changes in the way we do business. That's always uncomfortable. It's ruffled some feathers, and that's fine." The mayor is incredulous at the notion that some City Council members feel cut off from the departments. "Assigning executive department personnel to issues can't be done by nine council members. That has to be directed by the mayor's office. I can't have [the council members] in every nook and cranny of the city." He notes that the City Council has its own legislative department with a staff of 71 people—if they need assistance in research, writing laws, or constituent service. "They are well staffed and have a good staff."
Nickel's furious efforts to stop relatively minor council expenditures have also ruffled council members' feathers.
In January, it was the fight over $800,000 for a study on a new downtown hygiene center.
In February, Nickels fought the council's appropriation of $560,000 for social services.
Steinbrueck says, "We were criticized for our priorities—for support for food banks, youth counseling, and sexual violence prevention. Something is wrong with that picture."
Just two weeks ago, Nickels objected to $400,000 for consultants, including an independent audit of the troubled City Light. Drago says, "We wanted that money for oversight and accountability. We should take the lead on the City Light audit."
Each of these battles has featured a full press by the Nickels' administration that seemed unusually confrontational and partisan.
"If this were a hockey game," quips HistoryLink.org's Walt Crowley, "there would be some penalties for unnecessary roughness."
Again, Nickels shows no signs of budging. He says: The City Council and I "are going to disagree from time to time. That's part of a good civic dialogue. I'll fight hard for my position."
Other council members—utilities czar Margaret Pageler, affable housing chair Richard McIver, sparky electricity maven Heidi Wills, and neighborhood progressive Nick Licata—attribute a lot of the friction between the council and the mayor to the normal growing pains of a new administration. They disagree with their colleagues that Nickels is trying to shift the balance of power between the executive and the legislative branches of city government. (The ninth council member, New Age transportation guy Richard Conlin, was out of town and unavailable for comment.)
McIver argues that things have slowed down because the executive and his staff are learning new jobs. "It's the normal process of finding your way to the bathroom," says McIver. "It takes about a year." These council members also tend to say that Nickels is properly restoring executive authority over departments. They may express some concerns about stylistic differences but tend to think it will get worked out as the council and the mayor establish a better working relationship.
Veteran political consultant Blair Butterworth, who was Schell's chief campaign adviser, goes further than that. He finds the whole thing refreshing. "I approve of the pissing match [Nickels] has gotten into with the City Council. Many [of them] don't have a clue as to what the role of legislators is. All of [the City Council members] think they are either mayor or department heads, depending on their mood. It's a pabulum of minutiae. How do you hold anyone accountable in that kind of setting?" Butterworth believes that Nickels has properly reasserted mayoral authority. He hopes the consequence will be that the City Council returns to its proper role of oversight, setting policy, and shaping the budget.
Former King County Council member Maggi Fimia, on the other hand, finds the whole scenario sickeningly familiar. "When the legislators don't have access to the executive branch, when you start stifling dialogue, there starts to be a lot of conflict where there doesn't need to be." Fimia believes that what is playing out in the city is going exactly according to Deputy Mayor Ceis' script. The reason she decided not to run for re-election was that Ceis' hardball style as the County Executive's chief of staff had made county government an impossible place to work. "He wants to control everything," she complains. "He limits flow and information." Fimia believes things may get worse before they get better. In county government, she claims, County Executive Ron Sims and Ceis "blackball and actually slander people who don't agree with them."
Whatever their view of the new mayor, all of the City Council members recognize that the budget is the proper place for the council to assert its authority, and they are preparing to do so. While the mayor's staff writes the city's $635 million general fund budget, the City Council must approve it. In past years, the council has only taken 45 to 60 days on the budget and kept its focus very broad. "It allows us to play around the edges but not get into the detail" of the budget, explains McIver.
This year, Drago started the budget process in January, as opposed to the usual September. "The City Council is far better educated and far more sophisticated on the budget than in past years," says Drago.
"[Drago] is digging in very early and very deep this year on the budget," notes Compton.
Drago explains that in recent years, the council has only looked at "lines of business" in the city budget, a method that does not reveal much detail. This year, the council will examine the budget at a "program level" that will provide much more specific information.
The most obvious reason for the council's greater scrutiny is that the city is struggling with a budget shortfall of between $30 million and $50 million. But more importantly for executive-legislative relations, the council can use the budget process to throw a few brushback pitches of its own.
"If the City Council wants to assert its policy authority, it will be through the budget," Compton says.
Drago adds that the mayor and his staff "may have thought we were country bumpkins and they could take over, [but] the City Council is getting stronger. It takes time for a governing body to mold and meld. If we hang tough, we can maintain the balance of power."
While this battle plays out in City Hall, Nickels has wisely chosen a strategy within the larger community that doesn't require new laws and policy initiatives or other things that need the council's cooperation. Instead, he's focusing on little things that the city departments can deliver quickly. It's a strategy that everyone, Nickels' fans and foes alike, believes is smart and has been successful.
The biggest hit is potholes. Residents can call a city number and the paving crew will try to respond in 48 hours. So far, the Nickels administration has filled 796 potholes, over 90 percent of them in the allotted time period.
South Park's industrial-enviro Charles Cunniff admits to "testing the pothole repair system. I called in three times. They all got done in 48 hours. I didn't call in easy ones, either." Cunniff chose potholes in out-of-the-way places in South Park's industrial area. "Overall [Nickels] set his sights to something that could be accomplished, and he's done a good job."
Nickels says he recently went to a meeting with cutting-edge UW scientists who work in arcane fields like nanotechnology and photonics. According to the mayor, one of the scientists, after explaining what it is he does, broke into a grin and said, "And I love what you are doing with the potholes!"
The U District's heavy-metal neighborhood activist Matt Fox says the small stuff has worked so well because "you really get an idea that Nickels actually lives in the city." In other words, he shares the concerns of ordinary Seattle working stiffs. New signs around the First Avenue South Bridge particularly impressed Fox. "They finally have some signs up telling you where to go," Fox says. "People thought Nickels was a cream puff. He's a competent politician. He knows detail."
Former Mayor Charles Royer says it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of delivering in small ways for citizens. Early in his own administration, Royer took a call from a constituent who was concerned about a stop sign that had been knocked down. Royer called up the transportation department, which happened to have a crew in the area, and the stop sign was repaired the same day. Royer said the buzz created in the neighborhood by that one act was incredible. "The little things mean a lot. They have legs."
Most everyone agrees though, given the number of challenges that Seattle faces, that Nickels must do more than just small, noncontroversial things. "At some point, [the small stuff] will wear thin," says Licata. Nickels " will have to move beyond that."
Nickels himself is anxious to do so, hoping to take major initiatives on transportation, improving the region's economy, mending police-community relations, and fostering racial and social justice. In order to do that, Nickels must not only be creative with a shrinking budget, but he must also find five votes on the City Council to support his legislation.
As his opening 100 days draw to a close, one can't help but wonder if the mayor has hurt his ability to accomplish larger things by needlessly pissing off council members. As longtime politico and City Hall watcher Cathy Allen puts it, "Anytime you see an erosion of City Council turf, not only do battles wage, but it tends to be the defining issue for more than just one year."
Nickels needs to learn that a good pitcher can't rely on one pitch alone.