Bad Note

Mayor Greg Nickels and city council president Peter Steinbrueck are spinning this year's budget process as a love fest of camaraderie between the executive and the council. What a lark. This year's budget process ended, quite literally, on a bad note when combative mayoral staffers put the screws to the council--sending a threatening message to the council during an 11th-hour budget hearing.

At the November 14 council meeting, council members Jim Compton and Heidi Wills caved to pressure from the mayor after having originally helped constitute a council majority to rein in a whopping 33-percent increase for Nickels' staff expenditures. When Nickels' budget point man slipped a threatening note to Compton, Compton and Wills quickly stopped the proceedings and called for a revote so they could recant--and give the mayor his money back.

While Mayor Nickels' proposed budget calls for scary human-service cuts, it also increases Nickels' office budget from $1.8 million to $2.4 million. Sensing that Nickels' personal increase was out of sync with this year's across-the-board belt-tightening, populist council member Judy Nicastro convinced her colleagues to do their job as stewards of the budget. At Nicastro's urging, the council voted 6-3 to cut the mayor's office budget by $131,000--pegging the money to human services.

Unfortunately, in addition to Richard Conlin, Nick Licata, and Richard McIver, slippery Compton and Wills were part of Nicastro's "majority" vote. On the 5-4 revote 20 minutes later, Compton and Wills flip-flopped, nixing Nicastro's majority.

Wills' 180 was particularly galling because she had just finished pontificating about the need to scare up money for social services. After Nickels staffer Mike Mann and budget guy Dwight Dively passed their threatening note to the council, Wills voted to hand the money over for more mayoral staff and consultants. (Could Wills' flip-flop have anything to do with the fact that Mann hosted a fundraiser for her this month?)

The threatening note said: "Because of the council's vote was on the Mayor's office budget, we can't promise the money for [Engine] 16 now. Sorry." The note was a reference to Green Lake firehouse money. Basically, Nickels held the engine hostage to save his office expansion.

If Wills and Compton had any gumption, they would have exposed the mayor's tacky gambit, and grabbed the high ground to fight for human services and the fire engine.

The council surely could have passed a proviso directing the mayor to fund the fire engine. While budget provisos can't force the mayor to sign checks, they can shine the public spotlight on the mayor. If the mayor hadn't followed the council's directive, he would have been caught prioritizing his own office over safety in Green Lake.

Compton takes credit for saving "a God dang fire engine--and that's what's important for the community," he says.

Actually, what's more important for the community in the long term is this: council members like Nicastro (and a wonderfully outraged Richard McIver in this instance) who stand up to mayoral blackmail.

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