Photo via Washington Convention Center

Photo via Washington Convention Center

Election 2017

If Elected, Moon Would Have to Stay Mum on Convention Center Expansion

The mayoral candidate’s husband is the lead architect, meaning she’d have to recuse herself from oversight on the two-million-square-foot project.

*Editor’s note: This story has been edited to correct information about siblings and Seattle’s Ethics Code. See full correction below; we will post a more thorough examination of this issue shortly.

If elected, Seattle mayoral candidate Cary Moon will recuse herself and her staff from all matters related to the $1.6 billion expansion of the Washington State Convention Center. The four-block expansion is, by one account, the “single largest real-estate development in Seattle history.”

Moon’s decision that she would recuse herself and her staff was simple: The candidate’s husband, LMN’s Mark Reddington, is the lead architect on the project.

Before declaring her candidacy for mayor, Moon met with Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), to clarify the matter. Under the Seattle Ethics Code, Moon “can’t participate in a matter in which her spouse has a financial interest,” explains Barnett. Since Barnett joined SEEC in 2004, no mayor has had to recuse himself from any city-related matter.

Moon’s electoral opponent Jenny Durkan had no comment on the recusal; as it happens, Durkan’s sister, T. Ryan Durkan, serves as land-use counsel for the project, which would also mean Durkan would have to recuse herself, according to the Seattle Ethic’s code.

While Moon’s recusal decision was simple, understanding its impact is quite complex. In 1982, the state legislature established the Convention Center as a public nonprofit corporation. The legislature also has given the Convention Center a revenue stream in the form of a hotel-and-motel-room tax in King County.

The project is now entering a key phase. The eight-acre expansion will be in downtown’s Denny Triangle, near the Paramount Theatre and the Camlin hotel. The expansion will be more than two million square feet, which includes a 60,000-square-foot ballroom and a 150,000-square-foot exhibition hall. To complete this ambitious project, the Convention Center has applied to the city of Seattle to vacate three alleys and two streets. The street-vacation process gives City Hall leverage over the project. By statute, projects that include street vacations must be evaluated by the Seattle Design Commission (SDC), an independent commission appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. “It’s like the city’s design-consultant firm,” says Michael Jenkins, SDC’s executive director.

In addition, such projects must include public benefits. Currently the developer and the Community Package Coalition, a nine-member group of nonprofits, are in the final stages of negotiation over how much mitigation the Convention Center will provide. The CPC is asking the Convention Center to pay between $66.2 million and $86.5 million for open space, workforce housing, and pedestrian and bicycle improvements.

The SDC evaluates both the public-benefits package and the buildings’ design, and recommends or does not recommend the project. SDC’s recommendation is then sent to the Seattle City Council, which will vote on whether or not to vacate the streets. Most of those involved in the project expect that the Council will make its decision in the first quarter of 2018.

What is the mayor’s role? Depends whom you ask.

First, the mayor oversees all city departments, except for the City Council’s Legislative Department and the City Attorney’s Law Department. The mayor appoints the department heads, some of whom are subject to City Council confirmation. A new mayor will, typically, hire many new department heads. While the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) coordinates the street-vacation process, multiple city departments weigh in on street vacations, including Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities. Therefore Moon could indirectly influence the Convention Center expansion through her appointment of new department heads.

Developer Matt Griffin says former Mayor Ed Murray’s involvement was “sort of medium.” Griffin explains, “We work with all of those [executive] departments. I don’t know that the mayor’s office directs them.” He notes, “The law gives the power to grant vacations to the City Council.”

SDC executive director Michael Jenkins has a different view. He says that under Murray, “the mayor’s office has been heavily involved,” and its focus during SDC’s evaluation has been on urban design and quality. “Because of the size and scale of the project, the mayor’s office has had a much bigger role than usual,” Jenkins says. This executive oversight will be lost if Moon is elected. Moreover, if the developer and the CPC have trouble reaching an agreement, the mayor’s office, under Durkan, could help resolve the issues. Under Moon, some other party would have to step in.

Moon expresses complete confidence that the project can be kept on track without her. “There are plenty of other great people in the city who are keeping an eye on it,” she says. She is also impressed with the CPC’s effort to get public benefits in exchange for the street vacations. “We are in an affordable-housing crisis,” she says. “I applaud their efforts. The mix of improvements is the right one.”

Moon says the Convention Center expansion has not been a big topic on the campaign trail. “The questions have been on the surface,” she says. That is why she hasn’t been forthcoming about her planned recusal. Says Moon, “I didn’t know it was my job to bring it up.”

CORRECTION: According to Wayne Barnett, Executive Director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, mayoral candidate Jenny Durkan, if elected, must also recuse herself from “any matter that her siblings have a financial interest in.” Barnett explains, “Anything where [Durkan’s] siblings make money or lose money.” Outside City Hall sincerely regrets this error. According to the Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson website, Durkan’s sister, attorney T. Ryan Durkan, has represented the Washington State Convention Center, the University of Washington, Amazon, Pacific Place, Daniels Development and many other clients whose interests are affected by Seattle City Hall. It is not clear what clients T. Ryan Durkan currently represents. When Outside City Hall reached T. Ryan Durkan by phone, she refused to answer any questions and requested that questions be put in writing.

George Howland Jr. served as news editor for Seattle Weekly from 1999 to 2006. He now writes for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. Outside City Hall is funded by The Displacement Coalition. Howland works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy.

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