Breaking in a new mayor

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Regular bus riders know well the lurches, squeals and occasional wrong turns that happen when a new driver takes over their route. It's called a "transition," and City Hall is going through something very similar.

Mayor Greg Nickels' first month in office has been greeted with reports of councilmanic carping, executive indignation, budgetary booby traps, departmental decapitations, staff gaffes and cranky constituencies. Sounds like business as usual.

Actually, things are going smoother than they seem, but there is an inevitable grinding of municipal gears as a new mayor grips the levers of power — and discovers that the seat of city government was built to hold more than one driver. As an observer of and occasional participant in city government for 30 years, let me reassure you that we've taken this bus ride before.

Wes Uhlman probably had the roughest and most prolonged transition of any recent mayor, and it set the context for modern city politics. Elected amid the turmoil of 1969, he faced multiple challenges, both familiar and unprecedented. First, he had to make the personal shift from the political role of a state legislator to that of an executive, which entail very different styles as Mayor Nickels will soon discover.

Beyond this personal adjustment, Uhlman confronted a city government that was itself in the midst of a profound institutional transition. Seattle's 1946 charter established a strong city council with nine members elected citywide. It also circumscribed the mayor's executive authority with a host of independent commissions, a self-governing civil service and virtually autonomous department heads chiefly accountable to the City Council committees that approved their annual budgets.

In essence, departments proposed, the council disposed, and post-1946 mayors such as Allan Pomeroy, Gordon Clinton, and Dorm Braman reposed — with the occasional intervention. In 1966, Seattle reformers trumped the Charter by convincing the state Legislature to empower the mayor to prepare the city's annual budget. The new law tipped the balance of power in the mayor's favor, but Braman departed for a federal transportation post before he could exploit the opportunity.

It fell to Uhlman to put this new budgetary authority to practical use in the 1970s. He expanded Braman's fledgling budget agency into a powerful Office of Management and Budget (OMB) headed by R. W. "Woody" Wilkinson Jr., who in turn hired an army of smart young analysts to rein in city departments and bend their budgets to the mayor's will.

This accumulation of executive authority and resulting bureaucratic alphabet soup coincided with the zenith of federal "Great Society" programs such as Model Cities, which gave the mayor great latitude to experiment and also to cultivate community constituencies and reward loyalists. Even the "Boeing Bust" had a silver lining as federal employment aid allowed the mayor to sidestep civil service rules by hiring hundreds of "provisional" employees to staff new little city halls, senior centers and community projects.

It also created a new arena of "policy-setting," a jurisdictional Twilight Zone without clear boundaries between legislative, mayoral and managerial prerogatives. Uhlman organized a new Office of Policy Planning (OPP) under Wilkinson to consolidate his authority. Sam Smith, the first African American to sit on the City Council, responded that "five votes is policy," i.e., the council majority, not the mayor, ultimately guides the course of the city.

Actually, it takes both and a lot of cooperation from the line bureaucracy, which can thwart "policy initiatives" by mere indifference.

All this change smelled like a vast left-wing conspiracy to Uhlman critics, and they were quick to jump on staff mistakes and misstatements — most famously, aide Dave Wood's otherwise innocent memo mentioning a "third baby tax" as a possible population-growth tool. Even former Uhlman allies, notably neighborhood activists and fellow liberals grew uneasy, while conservatives inside and out of City Hall sharpened their blades.

During the early 1970s, the City Council itself underwent a similar and equally profound transition as a new generation of reformers, chiefly elected under the banner of "Choose an Effective City Council," replaced long-time incumbents. While ideologically more in tune with Uhlman, they had their own political reasons to check the mayor's growing power.

Amid this turmoil, Uhlman trailed City Council president Liem Tuai in the 1973 primary election. He clawed his way back to a 5,000-vote victory in the general, but his "transition" was not over yet. City Light workers and firefighters, both of which had chafed under Uhlman appointee Gordon Vickery, joined forces in 1975 to demand the mayor's recall. Significantly, they cited his budget director, Walt Hundley (an African American and former Model Cities director), as evidence of Uhlman's misfeasance.

Nearly two-thirds of voters saw through the smokescreen and rejected Uhlman's recall on July 1, 1975. One might say that his transition finally ended that day — six and a half years after his first election.

The fundamental issues lingered, however. In 1977, Charley Royer defeated then-city community development director Paul Schell in a campaign that focused on the "arrogance" of OPP and other executive agencies. Politics abhors a vacuum, and the council, departments and organized community groups filled the void created by a diminished executive policy apparatus.

As a former City Council member, Norm Rice enjoyed a relatively peaceful transition and eight-year run and rebuilt some of Uhlman's mayoral machinery, but some bids for policy leadership — notably the "urban village" plan — engendered familiar complaints of executive overreach.

Paul Schell's "honeymoon" lasted about six minutes as the council rebuffed early proposals to host the 2012 Olympics and sell the city's newly acquired Key Tower skyscraper. He made a strategic retreat, and never again engaged the council on its own turf.

Which brings us up to the present moment. Thanks to the 1946 Charter and a longer political tradition (if not basic human nature), Seattle's City Hall politics is essentially centrifugal. Left to its own devices, power will tend to spin outward to City Council members, departments and organized constituencies.

A mayor must reverse this flow and consolidate authority in order to do his or her job. This is not anti-democratic; it merely ensures that the one elected official accountable for the entire city government has the tools necessary to fulfill that responsibility.

On this bus, we can all reach the bell cord and there are plenty of seats for backseat drivers — but we are most likely to get where we want to go with just one pair of hands on the steering wheel.

Walt Crowley is a historian and director of He served in the Uhlman administration and on the Transition Committee for Mayor Nickels, whose views he does not purport to represent.