Does the City Have Too Many “Advisors”?

They’ve grown in number under Nickels, and that’s become a campaign issue—even outside the mayor’s race.

In 2007, 25-year-old Andrew Glass Hastings landed a job in the Seattle Department of Transportation. His yearly pay: $78,258. His title: "strategic advisor."SDOT hired Hastings for the position, circumventing the unionized ladder that most other city employees are on, after Hastings successfully managed the 2006 campaign to pass the mayor's $365 million transportation levy known as "Bridging the Gap." His new job was to oversee the expenditure of that levy money on repaving streets, building new sidewalks, etc. The levy projects continue, but Hastings has since moved on to a new "strategic advisor" job—and a new $102,000 salary. He now advises on transportation in the mayor's Office of Policy and Management.The term "strategic advisor" is a broad designation covering many different job titles and descriptions—all considered senior-level positions by the city. One advisor at City Hall is helping the city decide about building a new jail. The mayor's spokesperson is also an advisor. The pay scale for advisors is very fluid. While unionized city positions start at a prescribed level and rise based on a combination of longevity and merit, there are no such rules for strategic advisors—whoever hires them gets to decide their salary within a broad range, and if and when they get a raise. And while the city is usually required to post job openings and conduct a formal application, about a quarter of the strategic-advisor positions are exempt from that mandate. These are colloquially known as "clout" jobs. (Likewise, people hired for those jobs can get canned without any kind of formal process.)Mayors have always been able to choose their friends and allies to be heads of city departments. But the new "strategic advisor" category was created in 1997 under Mayor Norm Rice with approval from the city council. Mark McDermott, the city's Personnel Director, says that before the new position was created, it was hard for the city to hire people for jobs with broad responsibilities. It was also tough to convince qualified outsiders to come work for the city, since they would have to start on the bottom rung of the pay ladder. McDermott, who himself started in the Nickels administration as an advisor, says that any time a new strategic-advisor position is created or replaces a unionized position, the city council must vote to approve it.But in an election year, when government budgets are strained, the city's heavy load of highly paid advisors has become a campaign issue. Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn, for example, has specifically attacked the strategic-advisor positions. (It's one of his only non-tunnel-related campaign issues.) Based on data provided by the city, McGinn says the number of people holding the designation of "strategic advisor" jumped from 241 in 2001 (the year before Nickels became mayor) to 431 in 2008. If elected, McGinn promises to "dramatically reduce the number of political appointees."Another candidate who has attacked the growth in advisors is Jordan Royer, who is running for the Seattle City Council seat currently held by retiring council member Richard McIver. He claims the city is too heavy with management. "I think we are overstaffed at that level," he said by phone last week. And yet Royer himself is a former "strategic advisor" to the city. The son of former Seattle mayor Charles Royer, Jordan was hired in 1999 by then-mayor Paul Schell to work with the Department of Neighborhoods, where, among other things, he organized efforts to connect neighborhood groups with their local police precincts in the hopes of reducing crime. In 2005, Nickels appointed Royer a senior policy advisor on public safety.Royer left that job in 2007 to work as a lobbyist for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, but on the campaign trail he plays up his eight years as an advisor. "Nobody has my experience inside local government," Royer said in an interview with the Weekly early in his campaign, referring to his fellow candidates for Position 8 on the council. And last week, during Night Out Against Crime, a series of block parties meant to introduce neighborhoods to their local precincts, Royer repeatedly mentioned his role as an advisor to Nickels on crime and public-safety issues.Royer says he doesn't see a disconnect between his own past service as a mid-level manager and his call to cut dramatically the number of mid-level managers who he says are overburdening the city budget. "I never said get rid of all the strategic advisors; we do need to have good planning," he says. "I can reconcile that because I was inside and I know that we're overstaffed."Sandeep Kaushik, campaign spokesperson for Nickels, says that not all the city's strategic advisors are in the executive branch of city government; some are on the city-council side. He also criticizes the McGinn campaign for lumping together those advisors who go through a formal hiring process and those who are exempt from the rules. According to records obtained by the McGinn campaign, between 2001 and 2008, the number of advisors who are exempt from hiring rules rose from 98 to 119. So while the number of strategic advisors overall has jumped by 80 percent under Nickels, the number of clearly political appointees has only risen by roughly 20 percent.Transportation advisor Hastings did not respond to a request for comment. Nickels spokesperson Alex Fryer says that while Hastings is young, he came to the city after finishing a master's degree in public administration at the University of Southern California. His successful work on the "Bridging the Gap" campaign, and later on Proposition 1 (the expansion of Sound Transit) last year, convinced Nickels that Hastings was effective at getting both transit advocacy groups and the public on board with his agenda. "He has good experience around transportation issues; he has the educational background for this kind of job," Fryer says. "He's in a perfect place."Meanwhile, the city is still working to settle a 2007 complaint by unionized employees of City Light and the Seattle Department of Transportation, who say that, under Nickels, non-union "strategic advisors" and similarly categorized managers have taken over jobs that should be done by unionized workers. The union, a branch of the AFL-CIO, asked the state Public Employment Relations Commission to force the city to stop classifying so many jobs as strategic advisors.Union representatives did not respond to requests for comment. McDermott says the city has agreed to make it more difficult to turn a formerly unionized position into a strategic-advisor position. Also, he says, the city has agreed to change back a few positions that had been changed

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