The only people (besides the 69 city hall employees) who make the hour-long trip are four Seattle newspaper reporters, me included, and three gadfly activists. And while nothing nefarious happens (at least not during the day), there's a strong sense among staff and council members that the event is a waste of money -- $7,000 to be exact. And more important, it's a colossal waste of time. The programming is decidedly insipid. There's actually a full-on lecture about the benefits of the Internet! "Incredible bullshit," Jan Drago staffer Barbara Clemons says at one point.
Council President Margaret Pageler's agenda calls for a "prompt" 8:45 start at La Conner's Maple Hall on Thursday morning. But at 8:40, most of the 11 round tables scattered throughout the large room (complete with disco ball) are empty. In fact, council members Drago, Nick Licata, Richard McIver, and Judy Nicastro don't arrive until after 9:00. And Peter Steinbrueck arrives nearly two hours later.
The first activity is a "get to know you" game. Everyone is given a remote control box they're supposed to use to respond to a list of multiple-choice questions ("How expensive were Mariners box seat tickets in 1983?" "How many times did the average public utility customer lose power in 1983?" The quiz is inexplicably obsessed with 1983). The answers are instantaneously tabulated and a breakdown of the responses is flashed on a screen. "Who cares?" moans McIver, when asked a bland question about Pike Place Market.
"One reason we did this was to show you this technology," sputters Deputy City Auditor and Agenda Moderator David Jones, by way of explanation when the quiz is over.
At the break, I step outside with McIver, who bums a cigarette from a Licata staffer. His colleagues give him hell for smoking (McIver had a heart attack in '98). He responds by bragging about the bottle of scotch he's got back in his hotel room. Meanwhile, Council Member Richard Conlin suggests some late-night skinny-dipping in the Swinomish.
Next up are small group discussions. I latch onto newly elected Council Member Jim Compton's table. Each group has been given five scenarios that address methods of tapping public input. (Ironically, the theme at today's faraway La Conner retreat is "public input.") My group is bogged down by Compton (who loves to talk) and brainy bureaucrat Martha Lester, who likens this exercise to the earlier "get to know you" quiz. It's "oversimplified with pre-ordained answers," she complains. To the chagrin of Jones, who is running the exercise, the group doesn't answer a single question.
It's the post-lunch panel discussion, however, that ultimately brands the retreat a complete farce. First, we hear from Leslie Rae, a "virtual organizational development" consultant (who, I'm guessing, is either a cyborg or a stand-up comic genius). Rae, a former Pentagon consultant, incants like a 12-step inspirational cassette about some mysterious project called "Collaborate '99," while hyping the wonders of "e-government" and "virtual lattes." "Web TV is coming!" she promises in her weird, monotone voice. Licata and McIver -- who were supposedly on the council's special retreat committee with Pageler -- exchange a bewildered glance during Rae's speech as if to say, "Did we have anything to do with this?" Local pollster Donald McDonough follows Rae with an infomercial for his opinion-poll services.
Dinner at 6:30 at the La Conner Seafood & Prime Rib House looks promising: slabs of prime rib, salmon, and fettucine Alfredo. Unfortunately, despite my invitation, City Council Administrative Manager Barbara Hadley tells me the place is jammed, and hints that my photographer and I should leave. I tell her to stop hovering, but I get tired of leaning against the wall. We dine two doors down at the La Conner Pub on batter-fried fish sandwiches. When we return to the Prime Rib House an hour later, former Washington senator and featured speaker Eugene A. Prince is talking about God, while Council Member Drago dozes off.
The after-dinner party is in room 40 at the Country Inn, where Licata staffer Lisa Herbold and Nicastro staffer Jill Berkey are staying. When I arrive, the hoedown is in full swing. The bathroom has been converted into a bar, and Licata and Steinbrueck -- who have been driven out of their hotel for making too much noise -- are playing poker. Activist Matt Fox belts out Winger songs; Steinbrueck urges people to "bet the pot!"; and garrulous city council watchdog Alan Deright gabs while, unbeknown to him, his hotel is being locked up for the night, leaving him homeless in La Conner. I stay until 2:00 a.m., when I finally walk the four blocks back to my hotel room.
I arrive at day two's proceedings around 10:00 a.m., to find staffers abandoning this sinking ship. Nicastro staffer Charlie McAteer is planted at the corner coffee shop, claiming, "I couldn't take it anymore." The event has devolved into improvisational speeches, though David Jones tries to maintain order by calling for discussion groups. As I take my seat at the press table, Conlin staffer Tye Ferrell raises his hand and asks Jones the question on everyone's minds: "Why are we doing this?"
"That's a good question, Tye," Jones replies.