The man vs. the cans

Billboard czar Barry Ackerley has long had a chip on his shoulder regarding the press, which, in his opinion, blames him for everything. Despite Mr. Big Shot Basketball Team Owner's paranoid pose, we still say that if Seattle doesn't get public toilets on its downtown streets, it's all Barry's fault.

That's because our city fathers 'n' mothers are quaking in fear over the prospect of getting sued by Ackerley Communications. Trouble is, those private companies that operate street toilets are really in the advertising business—their contract grants the perk of selling ad space on bathroom kiosks. Current city laws prohibit such advertisements.

City officials worry that changes in the sign code (especially amendments which benefit the city itself) could mean more quality time in court with the billboard giant. Seattle, which banned new billboards two decades ago, has already squared off in court against Ackerley over its strict rules. Ackerley Communications owns most of the 600-plus legal billboards within city limits.

Not that Ackerley has been too badly burned. The company holds a virtual monopoly on outdoor advertising in Seattle and, owing partly to Barry's ownership of the Seattle SuperSonics, has long been given the kid-gloves treatment by city officials. When former Mayor Norm Rice was unable to get Ackerley a new public arena for the Sonics several years ago, he tried to soothe hurt feelings by gutting city billboard regulations. Much to Rice's dismay, courageous council members derailed the effort.

While Seattle has weathered its court challenges, Ackerley Communications has made a career of beating the daylights out of the city of Portland in court, largely owing to the Oregon Constitution's sweeping freedom-of-speech protections. But if nothing else, the dustup in Portland (where Ackerley holds a similar near-monopoly on the existing billboards) shows the company's willingness to spend freely on attorneys' fees.

The legal complications of the toilet proposal were recently discussed by the council in an executive (closed) session. It remains to be seen if the potential benefit of toilets for the needy will outweigh the threat of court challenges from the greedy.

C'mon, Barry—let the people go!

Sea-Town's Aussie posse

A few local officials seemed more colorful last week. No, it wasn't a personality upgrade, but the sun and sand of Sydney, Australia, that showed in their tanned faces. After a week in the country that local activist Al Deright calls "a nation of sunburnt, bankrupt, carnivorous alcoholics," it must have been a letdown to come home to regional transit and public toilets.

Actually, the itinerary sent over by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce helped reassure us that our public officials weren't having too good a time. After an overnight flight (and misplacing a day at the International Dateline), the first day in Australia was devoted to jet lag recovery. After that, their schedule was filled with a lengthy city tour, followed by briefings on how Sydney is handling issues from trade to transportation. Included was a block of meetings on hosting the Olympics (as Sydney will next year and we won't anytime soon). The most interesting was a briefing entitled: "The Olympics: How they are obtained and managed—their lessons and their legacy." Big talk from a city that hasn't got the bills yet for its moment in the Olympic spotlight (perhaps it just reviewed some favorite bribery techniques).

Not that everything was boring for the chamber's junket squad (the guest list included Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, Bellevue Mayor Mike Creighton, Secretary of State Ralph Munro, windbag urban affairs columnist Neal Peirce, and Seattle City Council members Jan Drago and Martha Choe). There was plenty of shrimp on the barbie at dinners sponsored by biggies such as Boeing, Microsoft, Seafirst Bank, and our own free-spending Port of Seattle.

Council chips in

Kudos to the Seattle City Council for ranking homeless shelters ahead of comfy chairs. The council is shifting $20,000 from the legislative department budget carry-over to keep the seasonal shelter at St. Mark's open a few extra months this year. Budgeted but unspent monies such as these generally go for new computers or office furniture, not human-service needs.

City hall on steroids?

Originally envisioned as a 50,000-square-foot ceremonial building, Seattle's proposed city hall has bloated to a proposed structure five times that size. At $300 per square foot, some City Council members wonder if a few more departments shouldn't just be exiled to the spacious, nearby Key Tower. "Why don't we have the law department in Key Tower, which was built for lawyers," suggests Margaret Pageler. "Wouldn't that also treat them with the dignity they deserve?"

That double-edged remark drew a laugh at last week's council discussion of the city hall project, but a few members are miffed that their colleagues want to reopen discussion on just who gets a spot in the new building. Council member Nick Licata argues that the city should set a spending cap and figure out how much building they can get for the money before assigning the space. He suggested moving the city's budget and strategic planning offices to Key Tower along with the lawyers. "Throw the mayor in there, too," joked colleague Peter Steinbrueck.

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