Two prominent city council employees--Mary Denzel, director of legislative research, and Carla Cole, director of council media relations--are leaving their posts next month. Whether either women was fired or quit is an open question, but the meaning of the departures seems clear: City Council President Peter Steinbrueck, who oversees both positions, was looking for a change. And who can blame him? On both fronts, policy and public relations, Mayor Greg Nickels has been handing the council its lunch for nearly a year now.

Nickels' council-trouncing ways started last February when Nickels balked at a council budget item (a half-million dollars to various social-service providers). Next, Nickels took firm control of the city departments so the council couldn't rely on the departments to cook up legislative policy. Meanwhile, Nickels made a habit of taking credit for council legislation, such as Jim Compton's cable privacy bill. And earlier this summer, Nickels upstaged the council on arguably the biggest issue facing the city: On July 18, Nickels released his own impressive police accountability plan after scuttling the council's version.

All these dramas have left the council struggling to find its footing, get its message out, and basically take some power back.

Getting rid of Denzel and Cole may be the first tangible sign that Steinbrueck is gearing up to take on the mayor. Indeed, the buzz among council employees is that Denzel wasn't assertive or politically savvy enough when it came to standing up for council legislation. And the buzz on Cole is that she wasn't running as "professional" or "big league" a shop as Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis and the spinmeisters upstairs on the 12th floor.

Cole was on vacation and couldn't be reached for comment.

Denzel, who has been the council's legislative director for three and a half years, wouldn't comment on the situation, referring my call to council president Steinbrueck.

Steinbrueck was on vacation and couldn't be reached for comment. Steinbrueck staffer Neil Powers, however, said it wasn't likely Steinbrueck would comment on personnel matters.