This morning's meeting between Mike McGinn and the City Council ended with Sally Bagshaw, a hint of a quaver in her voice, accusing him of using scare tactics and a questionably timed poll to support his plan to ask voters to pay for a new seawall now.
Beneath that smiling exterior is a woman ready to pick a fight with the new mayor.
McGinn came to the meeting saying that a poll he paid for out of his own pocket shows that 70 percent of Seattle voters are willing to pay more in property taxes to get the seawall replaced. Earlier this month he announced a plan to ask voters for $241 million this May for the project. Getting a tax measure on the ballot requires city council approval, something he doesn't look likely to get.
Bagshaw argued that the results were skewed because he commissioned the poll about a week after McGinn declared that the seawall presents an imminent threat to public safety. There really is no greater threat to the wall than there has always been, she said.Prior to Bagshaw's remarks, the city's viaduct replacement project manager Bob Chandler told the council that the seawall wasn't originally built to handle an earthquake. The chances of the seawall collapsing are about 1 in 10 based on its original design, Chandler said. But as Bagshaw pointed out, it hasn't collapsed yet.
"What's changed?" she asked McGinn, wanting him to justify rushing the timeline for replacing the structure. The council is already planning to replace it by 2015. McGinn wants the levy so that date can be moved up by a year or two. He argued that underwater termites eating away at the wood and damage from the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, had made the wall even less stable, though he didn't say to what degree.
Bagshaw's questioning underlies a bigger concern--that McGinn might be trying to proceed with waterfront improvements in a way that could undermine the tunnel project. Tim Burgess has already expressed his own concern that McGinn's plan to replace the seawall before the design and financing plan for the overall tunnel project is finalized might be a scheme to block the tunnel.
Of course, using scare tactics to sell any viaduct replacement project was a strategy originally used by advocates of the deep-bore tunnel. The state Department of Transportation released footage of the seawall and viaduct collapsing in an earthquake before the election, spurring the city council to approve the tunnel project before McGinn took office.
But perhaps the biggest issue is really that McGinn didn't run the idea by the council in the first place, subverting the "Seattle Way."
"How can we work together in a trusting and comprehensive way," Bagshaw asked McGinn. All told, seven of the council members expressed some degree of concern over the project this morning. Richard Conlin just tried to keep the peace, and Mike O'Brien, McGinn's biggest ally on the council, said nothing.
To his credit, McGinn was in a tough spot. His predecessor was booted out of office for governing too aggressively. So McGinn spent his first week making promises to do a lot of listening. But all that got him was criticism that he wasn't offering any specific plan for the city or taking political risks.
So he took a political risk and now it's in danger of blowing up in his face, as risks sometimes do.