As a joke, Mayor Greg Nickels' spoof video about the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement plan seemed to get old real fast. For starters, it turns out it was his video, produced for his office using a City Hall crew and facilities—not the work of some real or imagined private campaign committee. Mayoral spokesperson Marty McOmber calls such moviemaking "routine" and insists the mayor's communications director, Marianne Bichsel, misspoke when she earlier told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the announced $1,000 production cost would be footed by a registered campaign group, Citizens for a Better Waterfront. The pro-tunnel campaign is ostensibly a mayoral front group run by donors and workers from Nickels' 2005 re-election campaign. "The mayor's office must have talked with their attorney," says City Council President Nick Licata with a laugh. If that's now the mayor's story, and he's sticking to it, Licata says maybe he'll look into having City Hall Studios make videos for his pet issues, too.
A Big Ugly Ethics Violation?
The mayor's spoof video, produced with city resources, left out a few things. And it may have violated election law.
Web Site of the Mayor
This is the page where the video can be found and viewed, or click here (RealPlayer required).
Policies of the Seattle Channel
"The Seattle Channel is a Government Access cable channel granted to the City of Seattle. The channel belongs to the citizens of Seattle and exists to inform and involve citizens in government, civic and community affairs. It is the goal of the Seattle Channel to provide a multimedia program service for the City of Seattle, its citizens, officials, and employees. The Seattle Channel is both a 24 hour a day cable channel (Channel 21 on Comcast and Millennium), and an interactive website, www.seattlechannel.org. The Seattle Channel strives to produce compelling content that helps inform citizens about City issues, resources and services. The Seattle Channel works to help citizens get the information they need to engage in civic dialogue, to make civic decisions, and participate in the life of the city."
The video and disputed explanation have also now drawn a complaint filed with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission by political activist John Fox, who thinks the production by the Seattle Channel, which is a cable-TV channel programmed by City Hall, violates city election laws and rules. Whether the video is paid for by the private group or taxpayers, Fox argues, it's a misuse of city facilities for political purposes. "It's a campaign video," says Fox, who points out that Nickels has been stumping to make the viaduct a November ballot advisory issue, favoring—as his video does—replacement with a costly and disruptive waterfront tunnel.
Finally, if it's routine to engage city workers, equipment, and facilities to make a funny but one-sided statement about a contentious civic issue—whether to fix, replace, or simply tear down the shaky elevated freeway—then Cary Moon wants the city to produce a funny video for her group, too. If a registered campaign group is allowed to reimburse the city for making such a video, as the mayor's office first announced, or if a city official can routinely order up such a video, as the mayor's office now says is the policy, Moon's group is ready. The People's Waterfront Coalition advocates tearing down the viaduct and replacing it with new transit and surface-traffic improvements. "Maybe we'll ask for a movie, too," Moon says.
Ironically, she might simply be able to screen the mayor's spoof video to make her point. Nickels' 1-minute, 45-second satire features a nonexistent group called the Committee for Big Ugly Things, which purportedly wants to keep the viaduct in place. As a tourist in the background scratches his butt, an actor in the video says: "Mayor Nickels wants to replace it with this: A beautiful, expansive urban waterfront park." An animated graphic then displays a serene, tree-lined waterfront boulevard with people-friendly access. That's sort of what Moon's group proposes—but without that $4 billion to $6 billion (including interest) taxpayer-paid tunnel below and the five or so years of carnage it will take to dig it. If the quake-threatened viaduct is not retrofitted, the concrete wall of traffic will have to come down one way or another, Moon explains. And if it's replaced by another viaduct or a tunnel, 110,000 vehicles daily will have to find alternate routes for three to five or more years. Will that costly replacement be needed by then? "That's the fascinating thing about traffic: After even just two years, people will have altered their habits and patterns," says Moon. "I think that would make a great video."
She ought to seek a friendly council member for help. Licata is mulling the prospects of a message video of his own. He favors a retrofit or rebuild of the viaduct. "But I would think the Waterfront Coalition or anybody else might request a video," Licata says. "Where do you draw the line now?" He wants to see "what avenues this opens up for me or any other council member. I'm inclined to wonder about the ground rules, though. Can some council member call up Seattle Channel and say, 'Do a video,' on any policy issue? My understanding is that it would have to be educational in some way. The mayor's video is humorous, I'm sure, but I don't know how educational it is."
Mayoral spokesperson McOmber says that the Seattle Channel "routinely uses its facilities to produce projects that support policy communication efforts for the City Council, city departments, and the mayor's office." The spoof video is not a political or campaign statement because, McOmber says, it "was used during a policy speech by the mayor given to the downtown Rotary Club. The only thing that sets it apart from other such Seattle Channel projects is the use of parody and humor." The video was never broadcast on the Seattle Channel itself but can be viewed at the mayor's official Web site.
The Seattle Channel's policies include this in a preamble: "The channel belongs to the citizens of Seattle and exists to inform and involve citizens in government, civic and community affairs. It is the goal of the Seattle Channel to provide a multimedia program service for the City of Seattle, its citizens, officials, and employees. . . . Programming and scheduling decisions will be non-partisan, equitable, and determined on content." Later, under the heading "Editorial Integrity": "We will not create program material conditional on editorial control or review of specific content."
A May 25 P-I story about the Rotary Club presentation quoted mayoral communications director Bichsel as saying that production costs were being reimbursed by the Better Waterfront group. Seattle Weekly then reported that it was a registered campaign group comprising Nickels' re-election supporters and that the video was produced for Nickels' office by the Seattle Channel—and that its legitimacy would be challenged by Fox. (See "A Big Ugly Ethics Violation?" May 31.) After we asked the mayor's office for comment on the private funding of a city-produced video, officials contacted the P-I and "set the record straight," says McOmber. "My colleague misspoke when she told the P-I that the video would be paid for privately." The P-I ran a small story on the revised explanation on Friday, June 2. As far as he knows, says McOmber, "there is nothing wrong with using humor in support of a policy presentation. If you watch the mayor's entire speech, this video is clearly part of the policy presentation."
Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission Director Wayne Barnett says he can't comment on the dispute now that Fox, on Thursday, June 1, filed a complaint. "I don't want to make any general statements to the Fourth Estate that could appear to prejudge the issue," says Barnett. Seattle Channel General Manager Gary Gibson, after first speaking briefly with Seattle Weekly about the video ("advocacy is not something Seattle Channel should be doing"), said he didn't know exactly how much the video cost to produce and referred all questions to the mayor's office. Fox, head of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which advocates for the homeless, and a Nickels adversary, says in his complaint the mayor violated a prohibition against using public office, staff, and city facilities to promote his position on a proposed fall ballot measure. The City Council is still deciding whether to put the viaduct issue on the ballot to gauge the public's wishes, but Fox contends the mayor's conduct "makes it clear that election campaigning is indeed under way for such a ballot measure." The city's municipal code states that the "applicable period" in question begins "for a ballot proposition from the time the campaign activity begins. . . . "
Fox also claims there were campaign violations by the Seattle Channel for assisting the mayor and by the Better Waterfront group for failing to include a sponsor's name and other required information on the "political advertising" video. In a way, Fox's complaint can't lose. If the mayor's action is upheld—if the ethics commission in effect decides City Hall video-on-demand is a legit service for advocating on behalf of political causes and factions—wouldn't that open the door to an all-comers civic sound stage? It may be time for your close-up, Seattle.