Sunday, August 23, 2009

"With Nickels gone, will the City Council assert itself?"

Scott Gutierrez (
Members say Mallahan, McGinn will need help--Whether Seattle voters choose wireless executive Joe Mallahan or environmentalist Mike McGinn, the next mayor will clock in with little insider knowledge of how city government works.
With a new mayor feeling his way, could this be the City Council's chance to assert more control after eight years of tug-o-war with a mayor who had a reputation for bullying and steamrolling the legislative branch?

Some councilmembers said Friday they expect much more collaboration from a rookie mayor, which is something they felt was missing with Greg Nickels.

"I think the council's role will increase fairly dramatically with a new mayor, especially one that has not been involved in local government before," said Councilman Tim Burgess, who briefly considered running for mayor this year.

"I think with a new mayor, there will be a learning curve for us as well."

Nickels' abrasive management style drew plenty of complaints during the past eight years as he was often able to easily move a pro-business, urban development agenda through the City Council. Councilwoman Jan Drago, who opted this year to run against Nickels, criticized him for his "Chicago way" during the campaign, referring to his birthplace and its notorious machine politics.

Burgess, who was elected in 2007, said he doesn't think the council has been passive. He pointed to the council's rejection of annexing North Highline, which the mayor wanted. He said the council pushed forward on a parks levy without the mayor's blessing, and required stronger oversight of the mayor's $8 million youth violence initiative.

Whoever wins in November will step into a job made increasingly difficult by a recession and a $72 million budget gap, plus steady youth violence and the city's transportation debates.

"It's a gigantic job and we've got two people that don't know government and it's going to very difficult for them," said Drago, who placed fifth among candidates in Tuesday's primary.

"I expect it will be an improved working relationship. I think a new mayor will be in listening mode and will be interested and willing to work collaboratively with the council," Drago said. "How long that will last, I don't know. But I think that's how it will start."

Drago, whose 16 years as a councilwoman will end when her term expires Dec. 31, said that as a statesman, she's ready to help either candidate transition into office. But she thinks both candidates have much more to reveal about how they would manage the city.

Mallahan, the T-Mobile executive, launched his campaign by calling for an end to the head tax on businesses and with easy-pickings criticism of the mayor's bungled response to last December's snowstorm.

McGinn, the former Sierra Club leader, has built his campaign around opposition to the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel. He thinks the entire $4.3 billion project is too expensive and ignores transit needs, and that the city's $930 million commitment to to the project could be better spent.

The state has dedicated $2.2 billion to build the tunnel. State leaders say it's a done deal, and that since state Route 99 is a state highway, it's their decision.

City councilmembers interviewed Friday had no interest in reversing a decision that took eight years to reach. During the campaign, Nickels said Seattle would have to pay $930 million for surface street improvements regardless of what replaces the aging double-decker viaduct.

The state Department of Transportation plans in March to start construction on two new side-by-side surface streets that will replace the viaduct's southern leg from South King to Holgate streets in front of the sports stadiums. That part of the project, estimated at $545 million, was designed to connect with the existing viaduct while the tunnel is under construction. It also was intended to be interchangeable with whichever solution, whether a tunnel or surface street alternative, was chosen as a replacement.

WSDOT also plans to put the tunnel-boring project out up for bidding in March, with draft requests for proposal expected in January as the new mayor is taking office.

Burgess said he doesn't think the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel is in jeopardy, despite McGinn's campaign pledge to stop it. "That decision has been made, and we need to keep moving forward," he said.

"I'm old enough to remember when we made a bad decision about light rail in the '60s, and a bad decision about a Commons park stretching from Lake Union to downtown. We didn't go forward with those decisions, and I think we regret them," he said.

Burgess said he also disagrees with Mallahan's opposition to the $200 million Mercer corridor project, which in addition to improving traffic mobility is intended to connect Interstate 5 with the state Route 99 tunnel's north portal and improve connectivity between the west and east sides of Aurora Avenue North in that neighborhood.

"I think we've got some work to do with either one of them," he said.

Said Drago, the transportation committee chairwoman: "My goal and my hope is that both candidates are willing to sit down and learn more about the projects and how interrelated the pieces are."

Council President Richard Conlin, who advanced in Tuesday's primary in his own re-election bid, said there will be a need for a strong partnership between the next mayor and the council.

"There will be fresh ideas, but they'll also need to know what kinds of things actually work and what things don't work," he said.

Conlin issued a statement Friday that praised Nickels for his accomplishments and efforts to preserve public safety functions and human services in tough economic times. Like many others, he guessed the election would be close, but was surprised by the outcome.

"Personally, I predicted it was going to be Mallahan and Nickels," he said.

No comments: