Once again, the Seattle Way

"...In other news, the Seattle City Council today accepted a preliminary draft final report from its subcommittee on What Seattle Can Do To Help Save The Woolly Mammoth..."

It's election time again. The smell of blue ribbon panels is in the air. The City of Seattle is renowned - okay, notorious - for "the Seattle Way," an approach to decision-making that at times seems to value the journey a lot more than the destination.

Don't get me wrong. Public process is a good thing. So is transparency, and so is knowing all the facts. And all those things take time. But at some point, somebody's got to make a decision. And when tough decisions need to be made, especially as a local election approaches, "More process!" is often a thinly veiled excuse for ducking voter accountability.

That's been the fate of the two most controversial topics to hit city council this summer: police accountability and a proposed new set of nightclub ordinances. (I'm not even counting the fate of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which is in a controversius emeritus class, having been with us since the viaduct was damaged by an earthquake in Mount Rainier's last major eruption.)

With both issues, you have a forceful position from Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and a council reluctant to go along on measures a lot of people won't like but also reluctant to directly confront the mayor. Result: The Seattle Way, a solution in these cases born less out of the commitment to open process and more out of political cowardice.

Latest was the proposed new nightclub regulations, a largely inexplicable jihad by Nickels that enraged not only nightclub owners but many of the city's hipper cultural quarters. The creative solution, put forward by councilmember Jean Godden - she's running for re-election in November - was to pass Nickels' proposed ordinance giving the city new powers to revoke clubs' licenses.


But the ordinance is not to take effect for a year: on Sept. 22, 2008. And it is not to take effect unless the council votes for it again by that date. (Meaning this year's vote was a meaningless charade.) And, in the interim - tada! - the council has ordered up a new study of the effectiveness of existing regulations.

(Mind you, this is essentially the first leadership role the usually somnambulant Godden has taken in her four years on the council. But when cover is needed, heaven and earth can be moved.)

Even more entertaining, in a discouraging sort of way, was the response to a report this summer by the Civilian Review Board of the Office for Professional Accountability (OPA), the agency sort of charged with keeping a civilian eye on the Seattle Police Department.

"Sort of," because when the OPA was set up a few years ago it was hardly independent. The OPA could only review SPD's own internal investigations to ensure they were proper - but could not issue any subpoenaes, compel testimony under oath or conduct its own investigations in doing so. And then the OPA was hardly independent, answering to the chief of police and staffed largely with veterans of the law enforcement and justice systems, undercutting the whole "civilian" concept anyway. The result has been predictably hamstrung and toothless.

The Civilian Review Board's report blasted this arrangement, focusing in particular on SPD Chief Gil Kerlikowske's alleged interference in the review of a controversial Belltown drug bust and other OPA cases. At present, the SPD chief can reverse OPA findings without explanation, and the proposed fix for this was simple enough: require the chief to provide a written explanation for his reversals.

But rather than the City Council doing what legislative bodies are usually best known for - passing a law to fix a problem - the Civilian Review Board's report devolved immediately into a war of wills between Nickels and City Council President Nick Licata, with each of them empanelling their own "blue ribbon" group to study the problem. Not to be outdone, the NAACP announced it was convening a third citizens' commission. So, sometime in the next few months or years, we'll get not one but three reports on the issue.


Here's a bold prediction: Nickels' hand-picked commission will find that the current system basically works great. Licata's will opt for requiring that the SPD Chief explain his disciplinary reversals in writing. And the NAACP folks will call, as the NAACP already has, for Kerlikowske's firing. And we'll be right back where we were this summer, none the wiser, except that nobody will be up for reelection in a few months.

That's what's become of the Seattle Way.

So I have a proposal. Let's require that no blue ribbon panels can be commissioned and no outside consultants can be retained within six months of a local election.

Sounds like a great idea. Anyone want to study it?

Syndicated columnist and Eat the State! co-founder Geov Parrish's column appears every other week in the Capitol Hill Times. Reach him at editor@capitolhilltimes.com


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