Warned that he may have violated ethics rules, Seattle City Council president Richard Conlin last week removed several portions of a blog post that he published on the city's website. Afterward, Conlin published an edited version of the post, writing, "This blog post has been updated to ensure compliance with the City's ethical standards for the use of City resources when communicating about ballot issues."
Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, found some parts of Conlin's post "went too far" in opposing a citizen referendum on the deep-bore tunnel. (City law prohibits an official from using city resources to take sides on ballot measures or candidates.) As for the portions of the post that were removed, Barnett says, "I thought that those statements could be perceived as supporting the tunnel."
What, exactly, did Conlin write? He cast the upcoming August referendum on the proposed $4.2 billion deep-bore tunnel (a referendum he's tried to stop) as a "Seinfeld referendum," meaning it was a referendum about "nothing." He wrote that the measure was organized by the mayor and had gathered only 19,000 signatures (even though petitioners gathered 29,000 signatures and election workers simply stopped counting when they reached the number required to qualify). And Conlin added, "It is not clear what the vote on this ballot measure would actually do, but it clearly would not either stop or advance the tunnel project."
Barnett, who was contacted by Conlin asking about the post, says Conlin had been "dismissive of the vote," had tried "to minimize the importance of the vote," and had "cast questions on the legitimacy of the referendum." Conlin insisted he was merely being factual.
"Even if it's a fact, it's a campaign issue," Barnett wrote in an e-mail to Conlin. "Official City communications aren't an appropriate place to weigh in on either side of that debate."
Conlin replied, "So, I can't make a joke... is there an alternative way I can word the other two sentences?" Conlin removed the Seinfeld reference, deleted the portions about the mayor and the number of signatures, and rewrote the final line to read, "There are a variety of opinions as to what the outcome of this vote would actually mean."
No official complaint has been filed against Conlin with the Ethics and Elections Commission, and Conlin has not yet replied to a request for comment. However, Elizabeth Campbell, a leading tunnel opponent, also says Conlin has gone too far—the post being just the latest in a number of anti-tunnel moves. "At this point, Conlin is apparently twirling out of control," Campbell says. (She's particularly upset that Conlin has asked the city to file a lawsuit to kick her referendum off the ballot.) "He is so obsessed with the tunnel that he's exceeding his authority."
On May 31, Campbell and members of Seattle Citizens Against the Tunnel filed a recall petition intended to boot Conlin from City Hall. Campbell will need approximately 57,000 signatures to qualify for a citizen election, but she says that's manageable for a group that has already gathered more than 30,000 signatures to put a tunnel measure on the ballot.
"I am always serious about what I do," says Campbell.
Realistically, however, Washington State law sets a high threshold for recalling an elected official, requiring a petitioner to prove malfeasance or an illegal act.