Substance and Sideshow

DID YOU FOCUS ON the substance or the sideshow?

I'm talking about the city budget process, of course. The substance was the restoration of money for public health, human services, and public safety by the Seattle City Council. The sideshow was the very public, hardball negotiations over whether the mayor's budget would be increased by more than $500,000 while nearly everything else at City Hall took a cut.

While the City Council members deserve credit for their hard work to defend their priorities, the sideshow is just too entertaining—and significant—to ignore entirely.

The City Council, led by Budget Committee Chair Jan Drago, restored funding to many vital human services cut by the mayor: The city's network of community clinics like the Country Doctor and the 45th Street Clinic got $1.6 million; a smorgasbord of help for poor people—child care, voice mail, and shelters for the homeless; furniture for families getting off the streets; and food banks— received more than $1.5 million. The council also found more money for public safety—nearly $800,000 for community-service officers and crime-survivor services in the Seattle Police Department. To pay for it all, the council increased fines and fees and cut money for new sidewalks and current administrators. When all is said and done, the council will have shifted around $6 million in a $638 million budget. The overall amount is not large, but the difference in poor people's lives will be.

THE ACT THAT RECEIVED the most attention, however, was the $1.2 million funding for a fire engine near Green Lake. The funding disappeared and reappeared a couple of times during budget negotiations between the mayor and the council—reinforcing a couple of political truisms: While nobody likes watching sausage being made, you just can't take your eyes off it; and when politicians need to "find" money, they always seem able to.

The City Council's budget leadership—President Peter Steinbrueck and Drago—cut a deal early on that they would not seek to reduce the budget for the mayor's office. One year ago, Nickels, before taking office, was infuriated by the council trimming his personal staff, which rides herd on departments and develops policy. He lobbied the council heavily and even pulled in organized labor for some extra muscle. His effort was unsuccessful. The council trimmed his sails while adding to their own.

This year, while slashing food banks and community clinics, Nickels proposed a $645,000 increase in his staff budget, boosting it to around $2.5 million. Steinbrueck says, "I think it was a mistake on the mayor's part, but let him defend it to the public." The mayor agreed to cut that request by $92,000, and the council's budget leaders wanted to leave it at that.

The majority of City Council members did not go along, however. City Council member Judy Nicastro, who has been openly feuding with the mayor for months, proposed whacking another $300,000 out of Nickels' staff. She couldn't identify what the money would be used for, but it was the principle of the thing. Much to everyone's surprise, all the council members but Drago, Steinbrueck, and utilities czar Margaret Pageler agreed with her. The vote revealed "an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and a degree of ire" on the part of the City Council, says Steinbrueck. "Things aren't quite as happy-go-lucky as [the mayor's office] thinks."

At that point, Nickels' finance director, Dwight Dively, turned to Nickels' City Council lobbyist, Mike Mann, and pointed upstairs to the mayor's office. Mann left the chambers and returned with Deputy Mayor Tim "The Shark" Ceis, who passed a note to Dively. The finance director in turn passed a note to the council's public-safety chair, Jim Compton, which read: "Jim—Because of the Council's vote on the Mayor's Office Budget, we can't promise the money for [the Green Lake fire truck] now. Sorry—." Compton and City Council member Heidi Wills promptly changed their votes and restored the mayor's budget.

Drago says, "This is the way [the mayor's office] plays the game."

THE BUZZ ABOUT the strong-arm tactics of the mayor's office has been the top watercooler topic all year long at City Hall, but while it's no surprise, no one expected the hardball to be played out in front of the TV cameras.

Moreover, Nickels' willingness to find and lose the fire-truck money reinforces voter distrust of government. In the Tim Eyman worldview, there is plenty of fat left in government despite the tax-cut fever that has been raging in Washington state. It seems as if voters want government to be a purer, more perfect endeavor than private-sector business.

As the sideshow proved once again, that simply is not the case.

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