Des Moines Mayor Don Wasson, accused of hiding campaign contributions that reportedly swayed the council's stance on the third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, resigned at last night's City Council meeting.
The resignation surprised everyone on the council, said Council member Bob Sheckler.
"He (Wasson) had never let anyone get to him," Sheckler said. "But the (state Public Disclosure Commission) investigation was just too much. And the criticism from the public put him over the edge."
In a statement, Wasson said, "I am making this decision now because I want the City Council to be able to go on with its business without the distraction caused by the recent PDC charges."
Wasson's resignation as mayor took effect at the end of last night's meeting, but he will remain on the city council until his term expires at the end of 2003, Sheckler explained. A new mayor will be selected by the council.
"The gesture is very weak. He should have resigned from the council," said Dan Sherman, a former Des Moines city councilman. "He recognizes he's guilty. The next question is whether criminal charges will be filed at the county or state level."
Investigators for the PDC last week charged Wasson with concealing $49,000 in campaign contributions and expenditures aimed at reversing the city's opposition to a third runway at Sea-Tac.
The campaign contributions were also intended to help a local businessman, Hank Hopkins, win a contract to haul roughly 15 million cubic yards of dirt to the runway-construction site, the PDC investigators alleged.
The investigation alleges that Hopkins and Wasson, who denies the charges, were frustrated that a majority of the seven-member City Council wanted to continue spending public money to fight a third runway. So they sought to elect candidates in the November 2001 election who would reverse the city's stance.
Shortly after the election, new council members elected Wasson mayor, and on Dec. 19, 2002, voted to stop contributing to an anti-runway group, the Airport Communities Coalition. The vote was 4 to 3 on the measure that would have provided $150,000 to the anti-runway fight in 2003.
In all, the PDC alleges that Hopkins contributed $49,000, which was used to help elect Gary Petersen, Richard Benjamin and Maggie Steenrod to the City Council.
Under state law, such campaign spending must be reported to the PDC. None of the $49,000 at issue was.
In the 2001 election, Sherman lost his seat by 17 votes to Benjamin. Sherman spent almost $6,200 on his failed re-election campaign. He estimates that Benjamin — with help from Wasson and Hopkins — spent close to $28,000.
Sherman said people in Des Moines are stunned by the recent revelations.
"They're angry and traumatized. I think the feeling is, 'Why are these people still making laws regarding our city?' That's my take on the mood," he said.
At the meeting last night, the council chambers were packed, five uniformed police officers were there and the crowd spilled out into the hallway. It was the first council meeting since the news of the charges against Wasson hit the news last Friday.
For many years, officials at the Port of Seattle have proposed constructing a third runway at Sea-Tac, a project that is in litigation over the permits needed to proceed. Port officials have determined that more than 17 million cubic yards of fill must be brought to the site before building the runway.
Since 1993, the city of Des Moines has opposed expansion of the airport. In 1997, the Wescot Company, owned by Hopkins, first proposed building a conveyor system that would be used to move the fill to the runway, according to the PDC.
The PDC will hold a hearing on its charges against Wasson and Hank Hopkins on March 25.
Bob Young, Seattle Times staff reporter, contributed to this report.