The name ain't Seattle County

It now appears that King County Executive Ron Sims will keep enough of his powers to fight another day. Just two weeks ago, it seemed that an angry King County Council might club the errant exec into obscurity through a set of six proposed charter changes limiting his power. Now county voters will only face a single question on this November's ballot—whether or not the council should be allowed to refer proposed laws directly to voters (thereby bypassing the executive's veto power). This is a far cry from the original proposals, which also would have cut the executive's powers to make appointments, allowed the council to share in the executive's power to propose appropriations bills, and dropped the number of council votes needed to override the exec's veto from the current nine to eight.

But while the epic struggle has fizzled somewhat, the battle was the closest thing to pay-per-view wrestling the County Courthouse has seen in years. Call it "PowerGrab '99." In this corner is Democrat Sims, vote-wise the most popular executive the county has ever had. In the other corner, the County Council's surly Republican majority, right?

Not so fast, says Council Chair Louise Miller, who isn't pleased to see the charter proposals depicted by the local media as the legislative equivalent of a bad hair day. "The press, particularly the Seattle press, think Democrats rarely do things wrong and Republicans always do it wrong." The real tension exposed by this discussion, she says, "is the difference between the suburban majority and the urban minority."

As King County grows, Seattle's role within it continues to shrink, points out Miller. Only five of the County Council's 13 members represent districts largely comprised of Seattle residents (the council's sixth Democrat, Maggi Fimia, represents a largely suburban district, including a portion of far-north Seattle). Yet, County Executive Sims is seen as a largely Seattle-centric politico by the council's suburban majority.

While the daily press has been searching for the reasons for this clash among Sims' vetos, executive orders, and a recent clash over a proposed new sewage treatment plant, Miller cites the executive's performance on Sound Transit issues as a more egregious case of playing favorites. Sims has swept aside suburban concerns about the loss of access to the downtown transit tunnel by suburban bus routes and appears to have joined the ranks of Seattle politicians looking for a handout from suburban-collected funds to finish the costly light rail system.

Whatever the question—and Sims says he doesn't know what set off his council critics—the executive argues that proposals to change the charter are an overreaction. "Remember, charters are your [county] constitution—and this one has served us well for 30 years," he says. His council critics "have made a decision, for whatever reason, that this government is in crisis," notes Sims, yet they haven't managed to define exactly what the crisis is.

While she's coy on the question of whether the charter changes were just a shot across the bow of Sims' ship of state, Miller says in the space of a week the executive has agreed to more regular meetings with her and admitted that protocols for appointments haven't been followed. "Did it get his attention?" asks Miller, who then answers her own question with an emphatic "Yes."

They cared enough to write

Must every Seattle City Council candidate do a big campaign mailing just before the election? Well, based on the recent back strain inflicted on local postal carriers, taking to the mails is now considered a matter of survival. Forget nostalgic window dressing like yard signs and the few token rounds of doorbelling; ignore those campaign forums (just time wasted unless a newspaper reporter happens to be in the audience)—direct mail is the cornerstone of the modern Seattle campaign.

Which is why most would-be politicians were talking fiscal accountability but practicing deficit spending in the last weeks before the September 14 primary election. According to financial reports submitted a week before the election, that last big mailing knocked six major Seattle City Council candidates into the red, with the biggest spenders being a trio of candidates with no guarantee of surviving the primary: Jim Compton ($25,961), Judy Nicastro ($9,675), and Thomas Whittemore ($4,616). Compton can at least afford to just write a check; if Judy got eliminated, she will now be willing to mow your lawn for fifteen bucks.

The other deficit spenders were Cheryl Chow ($2,573), Alec Fisken ($2,648), and Andrew Scully ($1,956). But ferry boat captain David Lawton suffered the ugliest day after the primary, with a debt of $7,689, plus the fourteen grand he'd already sunk into his candidacy. Oh well, that extra cash would just have been squandered on frills like food and clothing.

Which raises a curious point. Under Seattle law, a candidate isn't allowed to donate more than $5,000 to their own campaign in the 21 days before the election. But that same candidate can charge a $20,000 mailing during that same period and just pay the bill later. Just another loophole brought to you courtesy of the US Supreme Court's decision in Buckley vs. Vallejo, which allows candidates to spend an unlimited amount of their own cash on their campaign.

On the positive side of the campaign ledger, Daniel Norton cut it the closest, ending his last-minute push with $19.53 in the bank. Other major candidates who stayed in the black: Charlie Chong, Curt Firestone, Dawn Mason, Margaret Pageler, Peter Steinbrueck, and Heidi Wills.

Here's yet another modest proposal: How about making a rule that no candidate who went into debt before the primary can chair the Council Finance Committee for two years after taking office?

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