A Big Ugly Ethics Violation?

The mayor's spoof video, produced with city resources, left out a few things. And it may have violated election law.

After watching Mayor Greg Nickels' funny anti-Alaskan Way Viaduct campaign video, featuring the Committee to Save Big Ugly Things, you'll likely agree he's on to something: a novel way to campaign for a pet project while skirting election laws, although he may wind up facing an ethics complaint this week. It turns out the mayor's office used a City Hall production crew to make the video. An election to determine the fate of the viaduct is expected in November, and the mayor wants it replaced with a tunnel.

First, though, get all the Big Ugly Mayor jokes out of your system. Especially since you're likely to have the big guy around for a third term. He just quietly moved funds from his 2005 campaign to his new 2009 campaign, according to City Hall filings, and is ready to begin steamrolling again. And, of course, the mayor says his unofficial Big Ugly committee doesn't really exist, although the mayor's unofficial committee behind the Big Ugly committee does.

Citizens for a Better Waterfront is the producer of the spoofing video. The registered campaign group supports the mayor's push for a tunnel to replace the crumbly and earthquake-vulnerable viaduct. They don't agree with the rest of the world that it can't be funded.

The campaign is itself in a hole—launched in April with a $28,000 debt. But organizers think the money is coming, just as the mayor thinks the $6 billion or so, with interest, is coming for the tunnel.

Ace mayoral fund-raiser Colby Underwood is on the job for the Better Waterfront campaign. So is consultant Jason Bennett, a mayoral supporter and former member of a mayoral advisory committee on technology. His firm, Argo Strategies, did the Web hosting for the mayor's 2005 campaign and, as of April, continued to receive funding from that campaign.

Market research for Better Waterfront is being handled by Evans/McDonough, whose employees both contributed to and worked for the mayor's re-election last year. So far, Evans/McDonough has performed $25,000 worth of labor for the Better Waterfront group.

Having read this story after it was first posted Thursday, May 25, political activist John Fox now says he will file a complaint with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) contending the mayor and the Better Waterfront campaign violated city elections law by producing a campaign video within City Hall.

The idea for the video came out of the mayor's office, and the video itself was produced by the city's own Seattle Channel, which, according to the mayor's office, is to be reimbursed by the campaign. "That's got to be a straight-away violation," says Fox. "Once a campaign is registered, as Better Waterfront is, the elections and ethics laws kick in." No one at SEEC was available for comment on Tuesday, May 30. But Seattle Channel general manager Gary Gibson tells Seattle Weekly that the video was, in fact, made at the request of Nickels' office. "We produced it for the mayor's office—we don't produce for outside advocacy groups" such as Better Waterfront, Gibson says. Gibson says production on Seattle Channel's end likely involved a camera person and editor for "a few hours, though they [the mayor's office] may have had some other creative imput."

Fox contends the video is the virtual production of the mayor despite Nickels' attempts to distance himself. In an e-mail the mayor sent from his office last week—issued specifically to alert citizens to the video—he claimed the spoof was produced by the Better Waterfront group, "a new group in town," even though it is composed of people from his mayoral campaign. The e-mail also contained a link to view the video.

Fox would probably agree that since it hasn't yet reported any contributions or contributors, the Better Waterfront group might be called the Committee for Big Ugly Campaigns. That's satirical, of course, like the mayor's pro-tunnel video. It's meant to laughingly suggest some political campaigns are slick, high-powered, run by insiders, and fueled by sometimes-shadowy or fat-cat contributors.

Sort of like the mayor's last two Big Ugly Campaigns.

He raised $1.1 million in two elections, the first mayor to do so in Seattle history. Two weeks ago, he took the final $19,308 from his 2005 campaign and launched his 2009 campaign. Once again, he's likely to take much of the money he raises and spend it on raising more money. But then, that's what elections are all about, right? He had no noticeable opposition last year but somehow spent $537,000. So that's a Big Ugly. Thanks to the mayor, we have an effective way to characterize unsavory campaigns, people, or projects. All in fun, of course.

For example, there was that deal with Bill Gates, the Big Ugly Giveaway. Nickels decided the world's richest man deserved to buy a $70 million piece of Seattle Center for $20 million for his new Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters. The mayor tossed in a parking garage to boot. Ha, ha, ha.

Then there was the Big Ugly Fire Department Levy backed by the mayor. In 2003, he promised that costs for new stations and other facilities would be capped at $167 million. Today, the cost is $234 million and counting. Funny!

Similarly, there's the current Big Ugly Transportation Plan, the mayor's $1.8 billion traffic and roadway improvement proposal that will draw from the same taxing sources—property and excise taxes—that might also have to fund the Fire Department levy overruns. Good one!

There's also the Big Ugly Overtime Parking Ticket—the chauffeured-about mayor saw that it was raised to $35—and the Big Ugly Free Parking Ban, City Hall's ongoing conversion of 2,000 free parking spots to $1.50-an-hour spots. A riot!

Don't forget the Big Ugly SuperSonics Strategy, in which the mayor supported a new KeyArena remodel one year, then disavowed it the next. And finally—all you need here is the punch line—the Big Ugly Monorail. Honk, honk!

On second thought, it appears a mayoral committee on Big Ugly Things exists after all. Why, the joke's on us!


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