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QUESTIONING SCHELL

A Stranger Interview with Mayor Paul Schell

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING:

Mayor Paul Schell slept through the Mardi Gras riots. He was "blindsided" by Boeing's decision to move its headquarters. There's a measure, Initiative 54, on this year's ballot mandating that he get dunked on the anniversary of Seattle's WTO conference.

No matter how you look at it, as Schell heads into his reelection bid, the first-termer is neither popular nor in command. Meanwhile, his increasing association with lawless streets (WTO, N30, Mardi Gras) has opened the door to law-and-order mayoral candidate City Attorney Mark Sidran. Likewise, Schell's bad-guy status among progressives (Hello? Tear gas on Capitol Hill, downtown development cronies, skyrocketing rents....) has some voters pleading for a Judy Nicastro candidacy.

We endorsed Schell in 1997, and we're disappointed. There's no sign of a pending solution to our transportation nightmares. Working-class people still can't afford Seattle rents. And, quite frankly, we get the impression Schell would be "blindsided" by breakfast.

His apparent magnetism for disasters and his seeming ineptitude at leadership have made it almost impossible to take Schell seriously, even though he did manage to usher through a $606 million budget this year with the right priorities--dramatically increasing transportation and human-service dollars.

On March 28, The Stranger's Josh Feit, Tim Keck, and Dan Savage sat down with Schell at Cafe Septieme on Capitol Hill.

DAN SAVAGE: Name a mistake you've made and what you learned from it.

PAUL SCHELL: Well, I think of the WTO. I mean, my values are intact about letting everybody be heard.

JOSH FEIT: The mistake was what? You learned what?

That we were not prepared for the worst, and I think our police department was not as prepared. I was not prepared. Thousands of people violating the law, 500 cops--you've got a problem.

JF: But then Mardi Gras happened and someone died.

DS: For those of us who watched the police chief on top of a parking garage watching a riot, not doing anything about it, how do we get our questions answered?

We need to look at the facts. There's no question that the police are not above criticism. But if that's where you automatically begin, instead of focusing on the people who were breaking the law, then you're missing the point.

JF: How do you respond to Sergeant Beste's letter? [Veteran Sergeant Dan Beste, who was on the scene on Fat Tuesday, wrote a letter to beating victim Kristopher Kime's mother harshly criticizing the city's handling of the riots.]

I like the fact that we have street cops who don't like to see somebody else take the street. But I checked with national experts about whether [Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske] made the right choice. I mean, he made a technical decision of treating a mob differently than a rowdy crowd. At the beginning, they had plainclothes officers in there; they had officers inside; they were making arrests. When it got so crowded and so tightly packed that the officers couldn't see each other, [Kerlikowske] felt he had a circumstance that was a mob, not a crowd. And if you charge a mob, you risk hurting a lot more people. And I checked, and they said that was the right call.

JF: The question is, why wasn't the city prepared for a mob in the first place? There were two nights of foreshadowing violence.

They had 350 police. More than we have for Seafair.

JF: Seafair wasn't preceded by two nights of violence.

We did everything we could to get ready to deal with what was most predictable at that circumstance. Look, I'm the mayor. I'm not the chief of police. We've got a really good chief of police who had to make a really hard call, and he's not happy with the outcome, and you just have to ask yourself, would it have been worse had he charged the crowd? And the answer is, he thought so, and that's why he did what he did. I think he's a damn good cop. And so, I feel my job is to make sure we have a good police chief there. But my job is not to substitute my judgment for his.

DS: What did you think of [City Council Member] Judy Nicastro being down in Pioneer Square?

That's fine. We talked to her beforehand. I really wanted to know what was happening. We had a good conversation. I like Judy. She's a straight shooter.

JF: You are not popular. In fact, you're using Bill Bradley to attract people to your April 18 mayoral kickoff dinner. Should an incumbent mayor need an out-of-town celebrity to kick off his campaign?

Bradley's going to help me raise...

JF: The Bradley invite seems like a sign of your dreaded 27 percent approval rating. I don't think Norm Rice would have needed to bring in Bill Bradley.

I think if he could have, he would have. That's why people bring in speakers all the time, to help draw. I don't think I need [Bradley] to help draw people, but if he will help me draw people for financing, that's fine. What's wrong with that?

JF: Are there going to be local leaders at your kickoff? Have you got [King County Executive] Ron Sims or [City Council Member] Peter Steinbrueck, folks like that, lined up?

I think you'll be surprised.

Tim Keck: Cher?

Cher would be cool too, right.

JF: ...Cher? So, let's say you run into Phil Condit at a grocery store. What do you say?

I had a meeting with him. I said Phil, you know, it looks like you dissed Seattle. You didn't talk to Gary [Locke] and you didn't talk to me ahead of time. But in the end they're not the factor that they were 10, 15, 20 years ago.

DS: Did you offer to build them a $500 million baseball stadium? Throw one in, see if that would keep them in town?

No.

JF: Let's talk about your accomplishments. In your State of the City Speech, you took credit for the libraries levy, for the Pro-Parks levy, for community centers. But these initiatives were passed by the voters. Are you going to take credit for defeating I-745 too?

DS: Did you have anything to do with burning down that school on Queen Anne?

Anyway... I put together the proposal on libraries; it was my staff that put it together. I put together Pro-Parks. It was Nick [Council Member Nick Licata] and I who appointed that committee. I listened to them and followed through on it. Then I went out and raised money for it. I actively campaigned on it. The same is true on community centers. I was out there raising money and making phone calls. So it's not just words. These are projects I pushed hard to get done even with editorial opposition on the parks levy from The Seattle Times, and I think you guys. [True.--Eds.]

DS: Why not use the general fund for basic city services?

It's not basic. We're adding parks and adding programs. The citizens believe, and I agree with them, that we don't build new stuff without the ability to keep it up.

JF: Eleven percent of the levy went to maintenance, including maintenance of existing parks. Isn't maintenance a basic service?

The maintenance money that people were complaining about started high and worked its way down. So it didn't hit the general fund with one big hit, and I think that was responsible.

DS: Why not a vote on the new city hall? Why are we building the city hall out of the general fund?

We have to replace city hall. The council decided that it was cheaper than fixing it. It's an appropriate use of councilmanic debt. [It's a $72 million project.--Eds.]

JF: Speaking of your general fund priorities, Council Member Heidi Wills had to fight for a million extra dollars just to build some sidewalks in South and North Seattle. Why weren't basics like sidewalks in your $606 million budget?

Under my administration, the transportation budget took $11 million to put into basic infrastructure repair and maintenance, including sidewalk money. My job is to come in with a balance that reflects the priorities. It was a good budget, and we worked very closely with the council. While we've got a widely disparate council, I think you'll find that I've got very decent relationships with all of them. You'll see that Peter [Steinbrueck] and Heidi... well, we'll see how they come out in terms of endorsements.

JF: Let's talk about your veto of Council Member Richard Conlin's Teen Dance Ordinance repeal. I don't want to argue about the pros and cons of the ordinance; I think we've already had that conversation ["Dancing Lessons," Dave Meinert Interviews Paul Schell, August 31]. But you blamed your veto on the fact that you were surprised by the legislation. You felt out of the loop. But your representative on the repeal task force, Walt Hubbard, stopped going to the meetings. It felt like Paul Schell's administration wasn't invested in reform.

You'll see, shortly we're going to send down something that we think will work. I've been talking with Richard [Conlin] to make this ordinance work better.

JF: The number two and three contributors to your campaign right now are employees from Wright Runstad and Sellen Construction, two huge downtown developers. Greg Nickels has said, "He [Schell] wants to build big things. That's the legacy he wants to leave." When voters perceive you as Mr. Development, how do you respond?

I think the track record is quite the contrary. I've been the most active in all the neighborhood programs out there. We've done over 700 projects. None of them qualify as news, but they're really important to the people out there who were doing them. Later today I'm going out to the Ballard Civic Center where we just acquired $5.1 million for their park, and we're going to build a library. Next to it, we're going to build a community center. Go ask the folks in Columbia City and Rainier and West Seattle. For the first time, they've got all the projects they've been dying for for 10 years.

JF: Was the council wrong to vote down the West Seattle garage?

Yes.

JF: If you look at the city's own numbers, there wasn't a parking problem in West Seattle. There's a parking problem on Capitol Hill. So if West Seattle gets one, do we get one on Capitol Hill?

It's a very important part of the strategy to have strong neighborhood business districts. And right now, a lot of them that are building themselves up are relying on parking to provide services. As they get developed, parking disappears. As parking disappears, it's a hardship for the restaurants, and the theaters, and everything else. If you try to solve it by having each new construction build its own parking, you get a strip mall. So it doesn't make sense to aggravate the public parking in a neighborhood business district. And we looked at some transportation functions [for the garage], like a place to put the bikes, the Flexcars [a car-share program], the rental cars, the van pools, the employer van pools. I think you'll see a change on the council on the Admiral garage.

JF: Let's build a parking garage to get bikes. I just find that a little odd.

I'll debate anybody on the importance of having strong neighborhood business districts. You've got to listen to the merchants and their plans and their needs.

JF: Speaking of garages and transportation woes, this week in D.C., the House Appropriations Transportation Sub-committee is taking up Sound Transit. Pretend I'm Representative Harold Rogers (R-KY) [chair of the committee]. Talk me into supporting a project that came in $1.1 billion over budget.

I'd say, "Representative Rogers, stay with us, we're probably going to begin a project without having a complete consensus. I've got a lot of questions that we need to have answered first, but we don't want to start over. We've got more money than any other city to put toward public transportation, and we want you in as a partner. [Two days after this interview, Rogers told Sound Transit that its plan was "half-baked."]

DS: Do you favor putting Sound Transit to another vote?

That would only be appropriate after we have a new plan.

JF: Is the monorail part of the plan? In your State of the City Speech, you added the word "perhaps" in front of "monorail." The voters have made themselves clear. Why "perhaps"?

I think this juxtaposition of buses or monorail or light rail is missing the point. It's like arguing over what kind of car we're going to drive. We'll use the technology that works. The voters voted for the $6 million [monorail] planning. I've been working with the monorail all along on this. I think there may be some corridors where the monorail is the absolute right technology, so I've never ruled it out.

DS: Last year, you and [City Council Member] Richard McIver moved to kill the $50,000 plan to keep the monorail alive.

That wasn't an appropriate expenditure of Sound Transit's money.

DS: It was money that was available for alternatives to light rail.

We felt that the numbers were going off the chart--why are we setting a precedent to explore this, when in fact this is really a Seattle issue, not a Sound Transit issue? The council felt strongly that Sound Transit shouldn't be messing with this. I still think that it may be the appropriate technology in some corridors.

DS: The ETC [Elevated Transportation Company] is going to bring its revised monorail plans before the voters for approval. Will you campaign for that plan?

It depends on what the plan says. To speculate on it would not be fair. It's a matter of, where does it fit within the context of an overall strategy? One of the mistakes that you make is looking for a single solution to solve all our problems in transportation. Hardly any thought was given to how people get connected to the system. It's a matter of integrating all of the different technologies. The technology doesn't drive the system; the system drives the technology. So you have whatever works in the corridors you're trying to serve. Whether it's a tram, or a bus, or a monorail, or light rail. You use the technology that's appropriate to the function it's serving inside the system. Bikes are part of the system. If the monorail is consistent with a strategy that's part of a larger vision of how we create public transportation choices, and we can afford it--sure, why not?

JF: But aren't you letting light-rail technology drive the system? Why is light rail the key to the system?

To me we're arguing about the shape of the wheels. The advantage that the light-rail decision has is that people already voted for it, and it's a proven technology that's used in lots of other cities.

JF: People already voted for the monorail twice.

They voted for $6 million to study it, as a connection.

DS: The first time they voted to build it.

No, they didn't.

DS: Yes they did.

They voted to build something that could be privately funded.

DS: And there was language in the first monorail initiative that the monorail would have to be built out of city funds. It mandated the construction, which is what [King County Superior Court] Judge Learned ruled last June.

Nope....

[Yep! In her June 7, 2000 ruling, Judge Kathleen Learned pointed out that I-41, the original monorail initiative, specifically required the city to adequately fund the ETC. Moreover, the voters' pamphlet statement for I-41 reads, "The City Council of Seattle shall make funds available... by issuing... Revenue Bonds or raising the City's Business and Occupation Tax." The voters' statement also specified that the purpose of the ETC was to build a monorail. --Eds.]

TK: What do you say to all these people who voted for these things and are stuck in gridlock--and now it seems like nothing is going to happen? Do you have any solace for these people at all?

Yes, yes, and I think it's the number one issue. I've said that we need to get started on the spine.... And second, we need to focus on the short run. How do we get better use out of our existing systems--Flexcars, bikes, van pools, buses in traffic-free corridors, neighborhood transit centers--where we are focusing on how to collect people on the neighborhood level?

TK: But is there any solace? Is there anything that says, "We are on our way; we are going to be breaking ground; and we're going to be getting ready...." Is there anything like that?

There's a whole series of steps, none of them glamorous, none of them high-tech, none of them billion-dollar efforts, but all of them will make a difference in terms of increasing capacity. We are underway on the short-term strategy within the city and connecting our neighborhoods. We took 22 families, giving them $80 a month for parking their car, and living without that second or third or first car, and then, sharing their experiences. And so it's a lot of things. Flexcar started two years ago [the city is contributing $30,000 to the program; King County is contributing $200,000], and there was a lot of ha-ha over that. Now there's something like 1,200 people using Flexcar.

DS: Why do you want this job again? It's been so bruising, I'm surprised that you're running. The last time I saw you talking directly to people was at Seattle Center on New Year's Eve and the crowd started shouting at you.

There were a few nasty people, but most of the people wanted their picture taken with me.

 

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