Who is this man?

Greg Nickels' take-charge behavior has shocked City Hall. But will he be able to get things done?

Mayor Greg Nickels and wife Sharon are all smiles as former Mayor Norm Rice delivers the oath of office.

Mayor Greg Nickels and wife Sharon are all smiles as former Mayor Norm Rice delivers the oath of office.

THESE ARE CHILLING times in City Hall.

With new Mayor Greg Nickels feuding with City Council, a seasoned group of hardball professionals in the mayor’s office, and popular Department of Neighborhoods Director Jim Diers in the unemployment line, the big question about the new mayor has been answered. That is: “Is Nickels an amiable softy or a hard-core political operator?”

A political operator it is.

What gives? Didn’t we just vote for Nickels the Nice Guy over surly hard-ass City Attorney Mark Sidran? Wasn’t Mayor Greg the friendly career politician who was going to carry on the tradition of touchy-feely Seattle liberalism he called “The Seattle Way?”

Well, maybe. Those who looked beyond the platitudes and checked Nickels’ “budget statement” position paper discovered a terse set of steps to create a pool of available funding. His plan: to assign city departments a spending cut target between 5 percent and 10 percent for next year.

Call Nickels a new Democrat for the post-Tim Eyman age. As opportunities to raise taxes dry up, he’s minding Eyman’s maxim that government has plenty of money—it just needs to set priorities and shift funds accordingly. Seattle’s general fund spending grew from about $464 million in Mayor Norm Rice’s last year in office (1997) to an expected $642.5 million in 2002. Nickels proposes to “peel back the onion” and examine where those increases occurred. And to create a budget that reflects his own priorities, not ousted Mayor Paul Schell’s.

Not everyone is thrilled with the wipe-the-slate-clean strategy. But it’s the price of dealing with a new mayor, says council member Nick Licata. Most new chief executives don’t feel ownership of a program “unless they designed it and put the first buck in it,” he says, noting that he’d prefer an incoming mayor who was determined to finish things the city has already started.

And cutting the budget is always a political challenge, in part because it always means cutting jobs. Nickels plans to include a job-cut target figure for each department to keep directors from trying to save employees’ jobs by slashing direct services.

Clearly, Nickels won’t tolerate much internal dissension. By forcing Schell administration department heads to resign their jobs and reapply for a spot in his Cabinet (and by not rehiring four of 18 holdovers), Nickels reminded top appointees that they don’t work for the city of Seattle—they work for Greg Nickels. By imposing the governmental version of a loyalty oath on Cabinet directors—and restricting relations between them and members of City Council—the new mayor may have kicked off a skirmish, but he also made a point.

Even council members who endorsed Nickels are surprised by his two-week transition into a tough talker. Judy Nicastro couldn’t quite pin a label on the surprising new Nickels: “Right now I’m adjectiveless with our new mayor,” she says. Nicastro doesn’t stay speechless for long. “He had the Pillsbury Doughboy image, but he’s coming out instead as Lucifer,” she jokes.

Having a strong mayor “could actually be some good, needed change,” she adds. Schell had the bad habit of staying on the sidelines as legislation was hammered out, then swooping in with a veto, notes Nicastro. “Where the gray area is, is when the council is proposing legislation [Nickels] doesn’t support—will he limit our access to the departments?”

She (and other council members) does admit to enjoying Nickels’ charge into office after the lethargy of the Schell years. A mayor who feels a strong commitment—for fixing potholes, for revitalizing troubled neighborhoods, for fighting crime, and for reversing racial and economic inequities—”I think that’s a good thing,” says Nicastro.

But getting headlines isn’t the test of a mayor, she says; it’s whether you can get things done.

With Nickels poised to deliver his plan for his first 100 days in office during his Jan. 28 State of the City Address, let’s examine five of his favorite promises from the campaign trail and gauge their chances for first-term success.

1. More firefighters

One union expecting tender loving care from the Nickels administration is Firefighters Local 27, which entered election season determined to better its chances of bringing Seattle fire crew staffing up to national standards.

Local 27 was one of the mayor’s most enthusiastic supporters. “This was the race we were looking for,” says Local 27 second vice president Ken Stuart. “We wanted someone who wanted to be an advocate for firefighters, for working-class values, and for public safety—and we wanted somebody who was going to be in a tight race.”

The firefighters’ union spent $10,621 on pro-Nickels mailers and funded a $20,200 radio advertising campaign backing his candidacy. Stuart says the level of firefighter support for Nickels was unprecedented, and they demanded specifics in return. “Rather than taking our endorsement and handing it out like a party invitation,” he says, the union sought to link it to specific candidate pledges (Nickels also supports the firefighters’ call for a city fire training center).

With the nation ever conscious of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the City Council paying special attention to emergency preparedness, there has never been a better time to argue for fire staffing upgrades. Still, if Nickels takes unilateral action to fund the additional positions, it would represent thinking well outside the City Hall box. Fire department staffing is generally considered a contract issue—and the firefighters recently negotiated a contract minus any staffing upgrades.

It’s a costly proposition. In order to provide full four-member crews on each fire truck on a 24-hour basis, 33 additional firefighters must be hired. At an average annual cost of $73,888 per firefighter (pay and benefits), the upgrade would cost $2,438,304 per year. Nickels has also endorsed a further upgrade to five-member crews for the city’s five stations in and around downtown (also called for by national fire safety standards). That would cost another $1,751,145 million annually.

Even when staring at a $4.1 million fix, Nickels argues that forcing firefighters to negotiate safety issues at the bargaining table doesn’t make much sense. “There’s a real public-safety issue,” says Nickels. “It just isn’t appropriate for us to be cutting corners.”

National safety regulations call for four firefighters on every truck crew, says Stuart, but seven of Seattle’s 33 truck companies have just three. Firefighters live by the two-in/two-out rule: A firefighter can only enter a burning building when accompanied by a second firefighter (who can drag the first out if necessary). And, those two firefighters can’t go into the building unless two additional firefighters remain outside to come to their rescue.

Union leader Stuart says the firefighters will give the mayor time to phase in the staffing increases over his term, but Nickels will need to upgrade at least a couple of the shorthanded fire crews in his first budget to keep his former supporters from morphing into critics.

2. New housing types

Pushing affordable, creative solutions to the city’s housing crisis is a no-brainer. But the concept of upping density in Seattle’s traditional single-family neighborhoods will always be controversial—and hard to implement.

Council President Peter Steinbrueck, who chaired the Housing Committee during his first four years in office, appreciates Nickels’ endorsement of further investigation of new housing types, including mother-in-law apartments, cottage developments, town homes, and small-lot zoning (allowing lots smaller than the current minimum of 5,000 square feet).

However, he notes that former Mayor Paul Schell liked those same ideas yet was never able to implement changes. Steinbrueck, who helped Schell organize a demonstration program for alternative housing types, says the effort fizzled after participants realized they still had to go through the regular city permit process. Steinbrueck’s own disappointment with the projects eventually built was that the units created weren’t particularly affordable. “It was sort of assumed it was going to produce affordable housing, and that was proven wrong,” he says.

Steinbrueck, who has tinkered with the city’s mother-in-law housing regulations, says the only politically viable improvement he could see would be to allow units in detached units (for example, an apartment built over a detached garage).

Nickels agrees that not granting actual permit authority to the alternative housing-types demonstration program was wrong. Nickels wants to further Schell’s efforts to streamline the construction permit process and to expand incentive programs for developers. He’d also back allowing detached mother-in-law units—after a pilot program in interested Seattle neighborhoods.

But the big difference is that Nickels says that, unlike his relatively passive predecessor, he’ll take full advantage of the mayor’s prerogative to propose legislation. If the council can’t come up with the changes he wants, the new mayor is ready to propose his own legislation and lobby for its approval.

3. Release the tow trucks!

A far more easily accomplished Nickels proposal is his favorite “small solution” to help ease the city’s transportation problems—posting tow trucks at the city’s major transportation choke points during rush hour to remove disabled vehicles.

It’s a proven solution. Since 1963, the state Department of Transportation has kept tow trucks at the ready to clear the two floating bridges; starting in 1989, the program was expanded to Interstate 5 during peak-hour periods. Last year, state crews and private tow companies under contract with the state removed some 4,000 disabled vehicles from Seattle-area limited-access roadways, including the two bridges.

Nickels’ concept gets the thumbs up from veteran radio traffic reporter Sara Johnson of Metro Networks, whose traffic reports appear on local stations KIRO, KNWX, and KQBZ. If you think I-5 and floating-bridge traffic is bad now, it’s hard to imagine what it might be like without the state’s towing program, she says. “The State Patrol is so backed up with accidents, they can’t respond to people breaking down. Without those tow trucks we’d be in a world of hurt.”

Her one criticism is that Nickels’ proposal to keep four trucks patrolling various Seattle surface streets during rush hour might not be enough. “We need to have double that number,” she says. Johnson also provides a few suggestions as to where to post them. “The West Seattle high bridge would have to be number one on the hit parade,” she says. Other key stretches of easily disrupted roadway include the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Mercer Street between Seattle Center and I-5, and “virtually every canal bridge, especially the Montlake Bridge.”

On the plus side, Nickels’ campaign- trail estimate of $1.4 million annually for a four-truck program seems way overstated. The state’s Seattle-area crews cost about $37 per hour for a truck and operator, although some other parts of the system cost up to $60 per hour. Even so, using the state’s rush-hour definitions (6 to 9 a.m. and 2 to 7 p.m.), Seattle could get weekday rush-hour service with four trucks for $300,000 to $500,000 annually—a doable range for the average budget addition.

Nickels says program implementation will probably have to wait until he has hired a new director for Seattle Transportation, a process which might take several months.

4. Call 1-800-SIDEWALK

Nickels loved to jab Schell’s tripling of the very popular Neighborhood Matching Fund by charging that city grants are being used to provide basic services, such as playground equipment and sidewalks. Why not just set up a phone number like 1-800-SIDEWALK, have a city employee inspect the problem, and then get it fixed. Simple stuff, right?

Well, it’s not going to happen. Most Seattle sidewalks were constructed when the abutting home was built, and their upkeep is generally considered the responsibility of the property owner. Even if you could call 1-800-SIDEWALK, you’d probably just be told to call a contractor.

Nobody ever tripped up Nickels on this wrongheaded example. Perhaps then-City Attorney Sidran can be forgiven for not knowing that the city isn’t responsible for most sidewalk repairs, but you’d think someone in Schell’s campaign (or his administration) would have caught Nickels’ gaffe.

There are exceptions: If the sidewalk has been damaged by root growth from a city-owned tree, the repair may be the city’s responsibility, says Mary Beth Turner, Seattle Transportation spokesperson. The city has also repaired sidewalks in conjunction with major arterial street repairs (such as the Northeast 50th Street repairs in the University District). The city further helps set up, and sometimes shares the costs of, local improvement districts (which allow groups of property owners to pool funds for needed repairs).

Nickels, who has several forward speeds but doesn’t like to retreat, brushes aside his blunder by saying that he wants to chip away at the city’s sidewalk needs (a tall order at a cost of $457,000 to $985,000 for sidewalk, curb, and drain- age on both sides of a single 660-foot arterial street block). He would also increase funding for an existing city program that constructs asphalt pedestrian paths (costing some $100,000 per block) on streets heavily used by school children and seniors.

He still supports the establishment of a single customer-service phone number that residents can call for one-stop information about any city service. Assuming the city has plenty of phone lines, he can accomplish this tomorrow for free.

5. City Council districts

One of the most publicized planks of Nickels’ platform isn’t something the mayor can accomplish in 100 days or even four years—he needs help from the voters.

Electing City Council members by geographic district will take a citizen-led signature-gathering effort and voter approval in the 2003 final election. Nickels says he simply thinks districts are a better system philosophically than the current system of having all nine council members run citywide.

If Nickels chooses to actively campaign for the initiative, he risks creating a further wedge between himself and some council members. When city voters nixed a district proposal in 1995, several council incumbents were donors to the “No” campaign, and most don’t care to revisit the topic. Asked recently about council districts, council member Margaret Pageler quipped, “Been there, voted on that.”

Even Licata, who philosophically supports districts, suspects the mayor’s backing could be a move to weaken the council’s political power. If the measure passes, “I can just hear him saying: ‘I represent the whole city, not just a district.’ “

West Seattle activist and former City Council aide Jay Sauceda, who is leading the effort, says mayoral aides Tim Ceis and Regina LaBelle have already offered advice on the technical provisions of the proposed initiative. So Nickels is living up to his campaign trail pledge? “Yeah, he gets a star,” says Sauceda, who adds that Nickels’ stated interest in a nine-member district system also helped convince supporters that it’s the best and most politically viable proposal.

But even if the mayor can help change the way the nine council members are elected, he’ll still need five votes to enact his legislative proposals, and that means fewer pronouncements and more compromise, says City Council President Steinbrueck.

Real political animals know that, fortunately or unfortunately, that’s the only way to get things done.

jbush@seattleweekly.com


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