Rice to the rescue

Seattle's ex-mayor fronts for airport PR.

READERS OF THE Seattle Times editorial page were recently treated to a vigorous attack on the state Department of Ecology's handling of the Port of Seattle's "third runway" project at Sea-Tac. No surprise there: the Times has long supported expansion of airport capacity in the name of convenience, trade, and the American way.

Only the byline of the sizzling diatribe against bureaucratic indecision and foot dragging might have raised an eyebrow: Why was Norm Rice, bank president and former mayor of Seattle, wading into a controversy so far off his own turf, and in such a personally engaged, pissed-off way? The likely answers to that question provide yet another salutary caution to media consumers not to take everything they see in the papers—this one included—at face value.

First: Most readers probably assume such "guest editorials" as Rice's are solicited by the publication that prints them. At the Times, that's only rarely the case. Anybody can submit one, like a routine letter to the editor, though op-ed page editor Mindy Cameron acknowledges that a celebrated name attached doesn't hurt the submission's chances for acceptance.

So why does an ex-mayor of Seattle get so worked up over potential delays to construction at Sea-Tac? Well, though it's not mentioned in the editorial, Rice is also an ex-member of the Puget Sound Regional Council, the intergovernmental group that gave the third runway project the go-ahead back in 1996, after rejecting (without consideration) alternative proposals for expansion at other sites in Snohomish and Pierce counties.

Still, a pro-runway vote five years ago wouldn't seem to fully explain why Rice should feel outraged enough today to rain imprecations on a state agency "that is just going through the motions and pushing paper" and "spending our public money on endless process rather than essential projects." And a close look at the evidence Rice puts forward for his charges makes his vehemence even more puzzling.

In Rice's jeremiad against Ecology's "obstruction" of third runway progress, the only specific example cited is its request for a redesign of a new freeway interchange south of the airport to minimize the impact of construction on wetlands. But that's nothing compared to the Port's real problem getting permission to build its 20-million-ton project: In fact, if Ecology's technicians don't approve its much-disputed, much- revised plan to handle stormwater and pollution runoff for the new runway by September 29, the Port will have to start over planning pretty much from the top.

In comparison to what that would cost, the delayed 509 interchange project is a drop in the bucket. Why swallow an elephant but choke on a gnat? Has Rice's perspective been conditioned in part by family connections? Rice's son Mian works for the Port of Seattle as a transportation planner, specializing in ground transportation and road access to Sea-Tac, which could explain the ex-mayor's intimate familiarity with the ins and outs of the state's freeway construction permitting process.

But Rice had even more convenient access to data on the Port's woes. The op-ed he signed as sole author was actually drafted in tandem by several members of the staff at Pacific Public Affairs, among them partner Richard Milne. PPA is and has been ("for many years," according to a Port representative) the Port of Seattle's PR firm. And in fact it was PPA partner Mark Funk who contacted the Times' Ken Rosenthal about running the piece. After some internal discussion, the ed board decided to go with it. "We liked the issue it raised, and we like the name attached," says associate op-ed editor Jim Vesely. When contacted about his own part in drafting the article, Rice referred, through a subordinate, to yet another coauthor: Bob Watt, former deputy mayor of Seattle and, currently, CEO of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

Op-eds crafted by committee are nothing new; remember how Microsoft got caught a few years ago trying to place pro-company editorials written by paid professionals in small newspapers around the country? Rice, of course, wasn't paid to put his name to the Times editorial, but a quick second look suggests why he might have been willing, even eager, to do so. Although all Times readers were ostensible targets of the piece, one in particular was meant to get the message: Rice's old political rival, Gary Locke—who appears in its last paragraph as the villain of the piece.

Get the Sea-Tac project moving, "Rice" demands, or suffer the just anger of the taxpayers. The op-ed doesn't suggest just how Locke's supposed to do that, beyond "leadership"; but there's a clear implication that delay in runway construction is all the fault of the Department of Ecology, and DoE works for Locke, right? The pressure on the agency and its director Tom Fitzsimmons to issue a go-ahead for the third runway, whatever its experts may say about its impact on the environment, has just been cranked up another notch.

Rice and Co.'s jacking-up of the pressure won't be the last as the September 29 deadline approaches. Freelance Eastside Journal columnist (and real estate investor and ex-Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce board president) Bob Wallace recently took up the third runway lance, castigating both Ecology and Locke for unconscionable construction delays and explicitly blaming them for the infuriating delays air travelers have experienced recently.

As the deadline for a go-ahead on the third runway approaches, readers can expect the Port's message to pop up in the media all over the region.

Read Casey Corr's more nuanced statement of the Times own editorial position.

And Roger Downey's survey of the Port of Seattles larger problems with building a third runway at SeaTac.

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