Books or banks?

One of the more curious bursts of civic activism recently is taking place up on Beacon Hill, where customers are beseeching the Library Board . . . to save their bank.

The conflict stems from the Seattle Public Library's desire to replace the current cramped quarters of the Beacon Hill branch library. On February 29, the Board surprised many observers by passing over options that would have built on the current site or condemned five residential buildings, deciding instead in a 3-2 vote to target the site of a Wells Fargo branch on Beacon Ave S. The library system is now negotiating with Wells Fargo for sale of the property; if terms can't be reached, the board could go to City Council for an eminent domain condemnation of the bank property by the city.

What prompted the library to go after a bank? In a word, space. The library is looking for a 10,000-square-foot site in a neighborhood with few available parcels of that size. The current site isn't large enough for desired future expansion, and the board was reluctant to condemn residential property.

Thus came the curious spectacle, at the board's meeting, of customers trying to save their bank. The Wells Fargo branch has operated under one or another name for 25 years, and is one of only two full service banks in a populous working class neighborhood that's largely comprised of people of color. The branch has 2,700 customers and conducts some 10,000 transactions a month. It also does consumer, small business, mortgage, and equity lending. Judith James, Community Banking District Manager for Wells Fargo, says the bank is "looking at every possible way to pursue a resolution for staying on Beacon Hill." That could involve using the current property jointly with the library, or finding another property; the bank needs less space (4,000 square feet) than the library does. Condemnation, says James, would be "our least favorite option."

If the city is having this much difficulty finding space for a library, think of the mess that's forthcoming when Sound Transit tries to site an entire system's worth of light-rail transit stations. Unlike the last time a major public works threatened eminent domain hereabouts, during the freeway-building spasms of the 1960s, there is little political appetite these days for tearing down housing. (One of the possible influences on the Library Board's decision was a letter from City Council members Nick Licata and Judy Nicastro, strongly suggesting that the board stay away from forcing people out of their homes.) That means going up against influential businesses for valuable station-side property, and it could get messy.

Ironically, Wells Fargo has been an industry leader in closing down bank branches and trying to steer customers to the more cost-effective (no expensive personal tellers!) electronic banking. Now they're fighting to save a branch in a poorer part of town. Hopefully, they'll find a new site, and Beacon Hill residents won't be forced to choose between books and a bank.

A tale of two parties

Dale Foreman's abrupt decision not to contest John Carlson for the GOP right to face Gary Locke in next year's race for governor was a rare act. Foreman actually put common sense above his own ego, calculating, correctly, that Carlson has greater name recognition, tons more charisma, and is more appealing both to the party's hard right Christian core (the folks who brought us Ellen Craswell and Linda Smith) and to undecided independents. Carlson is, in short, a much stronger candidate.

But that doesn't always stop opponents from running. Foreman and the Republican Party handled this well, avoiding a bruising and pointless primary battle and enabling Carlson to focus on contrasting his leadership abilities with those of Governor Jellyfish. Carlson may be wrong on almost every issue, but at least we know where he stands. And it's generally not aside.

It's instructive to compare how the Republicans are plotting to unseat a popular incumbent with the Democrats' efforts this year to retire Slade Gorton. The Democrats have a candidate, Deborah Senn, who—like Carlson—is not as favored by the party hierarchy as the weaker primary opponent (Maria Cantwell). Senn is almost certainly going to get the nomination; she's been running hard for over a year, has been wildly popular in two statewide races, and the party rank and file love her and don't know Cantwell exists.

Like Foreman, Cantwell's only significant advantage is that she has party pooh-bahs whispering in her ear. That counts for less than zero at the polls.

The Republican leadership is smart—uniting early behind a candidate who is not its first choice but who has a decent shot at winning. The Democrats, by contrast, spent months pleading with a reluctant Cantwell to enter the race and are sticking by her (and pissing off Senn's supporters) even though Cantwell's campaign is going nowhere. You'd almost think that party leaders like Patty Murray want Slade re-elected. Hmm.

The part-time job

While Governor Jellyfish waded in to try to resolve the Legislature's budget impasse—an impasse that would have been far less difficult if he'd shown any I-695 leadership in the first place—the larger and more obvious lesson was once again virtually unremarked upon.

With the billions of dollars managed by the state of Washington each year, it's simply preposterous to expect that the state can conduct its lawmaking business in 60 or 105 days.

Legislators are now faced with literally thousands of bills each session; they don't even have time to skim them, much less make informed decisions. Control then rests with the unelected lobbyists, bureaucrats, and department heads who can devote the time needed to get their pet projects done. It's an absurd way to run a state. The myth of part-time legislators, sprung from the bosom of the people, is outdated and dangerous. We need a full-time legislature in Olympia.

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