Council Blindsided by McGinn's Seawall Proposal

By Erica C. Barnett January 14, 2010

[Editor's Note: This was originally posted at 4pm.]

-6Mayor Mike McGinn addresses city council members and staff, including Jean Godden, left.

City council members and staff said they were taken aback by Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposal this morning to put a $241 million bond measure on the ballot in May to pay for replacement of the downtown waterfront seawall.

Most council members only found out about the proposal by phone or voice mail last night or this morning (when all nine council members were attending their annual retreat at the Bell Harbor Conference Center). One—transportation committee chair Tom Rasmussen, whom one might assume McGinn would want to include in an announcement separating viaduct replacement from the seawall—found out about the proposal from a reporter late this morning.

At his press conference, McGinn said he was “encouraged” by his conversations with the council—a statement that made more than one council member chuckle. “He didn’t talk to me,” several told me this afternoon.

McGinn did reportedly ask council president Richard Conlin last night to participate in this morning’s press conference announcing the bond proposal, but Conlin was unable to do so because of the day-long retreat.

In a question-and-answer setting at the council retreat this afternoon, council members grilled McGinn on the process by which he arrived at today’s announcement.

“I’m getting a number of calls from the press asking what I think of the seawall proposal, and I haven’t really had any information on it,” Rasmussen said. “Is this an example of how you plan to make decisions in the future?”

McGinn responded: “I have never heard anyone say that we do not need to replace the seawall… The council, of course, can choose to modify or work it or deal with it as they see fit."

Also in response to Rasmussen’s question, McGinn called the seawall a “simple [project], physically,” prompting council member Sally Clark to ask why he believed that. “You just described the seawall as relatively simple, which is interesting, because when I think of the Port, and the tribes, and the desire to do a really innovative seawall the recognizes all the people in that area…  it seems like it’s a pretty complicated” project.

Council members also expressed concern that McGinn was separating seawall replacement from planning for the waterfront (McGinn spokesman Mark Matassa told me he considered them "separate projects"), when the two have always been seen as linked. (Waterfront planning includes parks, salmon recovery, and work with local tribes, among other things that don't appear to be explicitly included in McGinn's proposal. "Our expectation was that we were going to look at this in the context of the whole waterfront planning effort," Rasmussen said. "It seems like he's rejected that."

Rasmussen also noted that the council has been considering a number of other financing sources—including a local improvement district, a transportation benefits district, and a parking tax—to pay for seawall replacement. A bond measure would supplant any of those options.

The council will have to vote by March on whether to put the seawall measure on the May ballot, where it will need 60 percent of the vote to win. Because they haven’t seen the details of the proposal, several council members said, they couldn’t say whether they would vote for or against the measure. "We're going to have to put together a proposal really fast," Rasmussen said.

And several, including Nick Licata, noted that the seawall bond measure would compete with a number of other potential levies this year, including the Seattle education levy (Feb. 9), the Families and Education Levy (2011), a potential levy for light-rail expansion (undetermined, but the likeliest date appears to be November 2010), and a potential levy for parks operations.

Asked how he planned to prioritize all the various potential levies, McGinn responded, “The only two things that are on the horizon right now are the Families and Education Levy next year and a commitment to bring a light rail expansion levy to the ballot in two years. I’m not aware that they are any other expiring levies, and I haven’t put any measures on the table.”

McGinn also suggested that the recently repealed “head tax” (a $25 tax on employees who drive to work alone) might be a source of funding for transit in the future, prompting council member Tim Burgess to shout, “Yeah, right!” As the room erupted in laughter, council member Jean Godden added more quietly: “Good luck."
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