Monorail on a Fast Track

Before the election was even decided, the planning agency chose an executive.

Just don’t call it a mandate. Conspiracy theories, tales of missing ballots, and accusations of bungling by the King County Elections Division were flying thick and fast as the Seattle monorail proposal’s triple-digit lead shrunk on Monday to a three-vote loss, then edged back to a 868-vote victory Tuesday. The last-day uncertainty was proof of a divided electorate. But the people running the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC), the public agency that created the proposal for the Nov. 5 election, had already plowed ahead, appointing a director and planning future agency business nearly a full week before the votes were certified.

The premature victory party started last Tuesday, when monorail campaign consultant Dana Robinson invited reporters to a press conference to be held 15 minutes after that day’s vote tally was to be released. Then Robinson called off the press conference. When the votes came in—50.2 percent for, 49.8 percent against—ETC board chair Tom Weeks laid down the law: no more press conferences.

THEN, ON FRIDAY, with thousands of votes yet to be counted, the ETC tentatively appointed technical program coordinator Joel Horn as executive director of the then-nonexistent Seattle Popular Monorail Authority. Although most agencies conduct a national search before filling a position as important as executive director, ETC staffers and board members believed none was needed, because, in the words of former ETC outreach director Ed Stone, “I’m not sure if we could find anybody better if we did.” ETC board member Dick Falkenbury characterized Horn’s appointment to the $115,000 job as, in part, a “reward” for putting a plan together for the ballot so quickly, adding, “I think one of the considerations was that if we don’t go with Horn, we’re going to put this thing back six months at a minimum” while a national search is conducted.

BUT THE DECISION was unusual for another reason: The ETC board, which now will become the interim board of the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority, didn’t have the authority to select the director, because the agency didn’t exist. Why move forward before the votes were counted? No one at the ETC had a real answer, but the consensus appeared to be: Faster is better. The faster the agency can appoint its executive director, the faster it can choose a bond underwriter, hire agency staff, and appoint the majority of the monorail authority’s nine-member board. (The remaining members will be appointed by the mayor and City Council.)

Put on the defensive by its premature jubilation, the monorail campaign started talking conspiracy as the monorail- proposal lead shrank. At first, the talk was jocular, with King County Executive and monorail opponent Ron Sims the foil. “I hate to say how Sims is going to muck around with numbers—if he only releases two ballots and they’re his grandmother’s and his great-aunt’s, we won’t be looking very good,” Weeks joked last week. Later, the accusations turned somber. The opposition “did their entire campaign from Thursday to Tuesday,” the day of the election, said monorail campaign spokesperson Peter Sherwin. Many absentees didn’t get their ballots until then, and Sherwin believed they might have been influenced by late advertising by the anti-monorail campaign. The conspiracy theorists were given more fuel when King County Elections Superintendent Julie Anne Kempf changed her story in explaining why the absentee ballots were mailed out late. “If she was testifying, she’d be in jail for perjury right now,” Sherwin said.

WHAT’S NEXT for the monorail? As soon as the votes were certified Wednesday, the existing ETC board was to appoint itself as the interim board of the new Seattle Popular Monorail Authority (SPMA). That board will then formally appoint Horn as executive director. Sometime in the next 14 months—or sooner, Stone believes—the first regular SPMA board will be appointed. The process should result in some jockeying among current board members, who will have to choose five (likely from among their number) to continue serving; the mayor and City Council get two appointments each. Of course, they could always appoint some of the current board members. Kristina Hill, Craig Norsen, Dick Falkenbury, Stuart Rolfe, and, of course, Tom Weeks are widely viewed as the most likely contenders. Falkenbury says the group should perform oversight, not agency business. “You want to be a watchdog, so you don’t need a watchdog,” he says.

ALMOST IMMEDIATELY, the SPMA will have to find office space (the ETC’s Columbia Center lease is ending soon) and start looking for bond underwriters, a process that will be open for bids. Stone says the agency is expected to hire between 40 and 45 staff members right away, a number that could grow as the project comes closer to fruition. The city, according to Weeks, will release a $20 million loan to the agency sometime in December.

In the longer term, the agency will need to decide whether to have the monorail Green Line route, which runs from Ballard through downtown to West Seattle, cross or skirt Seattle Center, and whether to demolish or preserve the existing monorail, which might receive landmark status. Although Weeks says the possibility of running the old monorail cars on a short stretch of the new system is still on the table, Sherwin says he doubts the SPMA will keep the beloved 1962 line running. “They’ll probably just say, go ahead and save the cars and put them in a museum” if the system receives landmark status, Sherwin says. As City Council member Nick Licata notes, “You can do landmark status and still demolish something and keep a photograph on the wall.”