Year of the council

Can you imagine a row of local political writers sitting around praising the Seattle City Council? This actually happened at an early December forum, with a panel consisting of this columnist, the Weekly‘s Geov Parrish, and The Stranger‘s George Howland (at an event sponsored by the Seattle Displacement Coalition, no less!).

OK, the panel’s actual topic was the performance of first-year council members Richard Conlin, Nick Licata, and Peter Steinbrueck, but general consensus says the three new guys have vastly improved the city’s legislative functions. And furthermore, the individual performances of the three were unanimously rated as follows: 1) Licata, 2) Steinbrueck, and 3) Conlin.

These numbers also neatly coincide with their positions in the council’s food-for-thought chain—and explain why the new guys have so changed political dynamics in City Hall. Licata is a 1—a first vote, a guy who is courageous enough to stand alone. Steinbrueck is a 2—someone willing to join a colleague on an iffy political proposition. Conlin (like the majority of his council colleagues) is a 3—a legislator who needs the security of being the third or fourth declared supporter of an initiative.

Freed of their traditional worries over political isolation, the other council members have blossomed. Jan Drago has stood up on several labor-related matters. Tina Podlodowski has been freed to explore the conflicting poles of her political personality (lesbian mom vs. rich white lady from Microsoft). Margaret Pageler, who always managed a few principled dissents annually, has grown more outspoken. Martha Choe has solidified her role as liaison between the mayor and council. The cipher-like Richard McIver is even showing signs of developing a political philosophy (or owning up to the one he’s carefully concealed over the past two years).

Even bad calls like the council’s impossibly muddled political statement in declining to sanction city vendors with investments in Burma featured down-to-the-wire votes and strongly worded, passionate arguments.

Of course, not everyone benefits from a stronger, more thoughtful council. New mayor Paul Schell, in particular, found himself pining away for the rubber-stamp legislators of the Norm Rice administration. Schell pal David Brewster claimed in his Seattle Times column that the council needs members “who understand how to be legislators, not managers and second-guessers,” and suggested we tap members of the city’s Olympia delegation as replacements. (A point of disclosure: Seattle Weekly founder Brewster hired this columnist, then quickly sold the paper and ran off laughing into the night.)

An interesting idea, perhaps, but full-time City Council members are far more powerful than our Oly part-timers, and the city charter allows them a far greater role in the day-to-day workings of government than our state legislators get. And so far Schell shows little interest in exercising the minor powers of the mayor’s office, instead concentrating on big projects that must pass council muster.

With at least one open council seat up for election in 1999, there’s even the potential for more improvement. How times have changed.

Department of Collusion and Large Ulcers

Proving conclusively that no good deed goes unpunished, the Fremont Neighborhood Council’s noble lawsuit challenging the city’s lax practices of extending developers’ building permits was dismissed. The King County Superior Court case challenged the permits for part of the Quadrant Lake Union Center development (the rapidly developing office park below the north footings of the Fremont Bridge). Under city law, construction must begin within five years, but the city obligingly stopped the clock because Quadrant was litigating site cleanup issues with the Burlington Northern Railroad (Quadrant sued the railroad). However, the city’s contention that the Burlington suit was legitimately blocking development was kind of weakened when Quadrant, still in midlitigation, actually scored a tenant for one of the three proposed buildings and built it.

“It appears to mean that, for the price of simply filing any lawsuit relating to their property, anyone can purchase a city building permit that has no effective expiration date,” says the FNC’s Becky Sukovaty. Yes, that’s correct. It also leaves the power to issue these open-ended waivers to staffers at the city’s Department of Construction and Land Use, whose salaries are funded through developer fees. The FNC will consider an appeal of the decision.

You don’t say

Maybe its just a matter of darting from page to page in order to avoid those “1998—What a Year” stories, but it seems like there’s been a load of really odd local political stories recently. Take the long section-front Seattle Times feature on former council member Charlie Chong and his future political plans. A nice plug, but isn’t this the same guy the Times thought would plunge Seattle back into the Dark Ages if elected mayor?

Even better was this verbal gem from Sybil Bailey, Schell’s nominee for the Seattle Housing Authority board. Quizzed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about the opposition that led to her appointment being rejected by the council’s Housing Committee, Bailey deftly packed all her innuendos into a single statement: “For a while, I was thinking it was because I was black and in a wheelchair. Now I know it’s just politics.” As a bonus, in case we missed it the first time, the P-I obligingly repeated the quote in 14-point type.

Speaking of the mayor, folks were naturally happy to read hizzoner’s candid assessment of his first year in office courtesy of the P-I. (Candidly, he thinks he’s doing great.) But what to make of his proposal that we tear down Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center and replace it with a public garden to rival Victoria’s Butchart Gardens? Wasn’t the new, improved Arboretum going to do that? And aren’t the Butchart Gardens just a little bit bigger (and somewhat more pastoral) than the stadium site? Maybe it could be a really big P-patch.

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