As the clock ran down on Monday's 2:00 p.m. Seattle City Council meeting—the biennial swearing-in of reelected council members, and the first meeting of the year—a storm was brewing in council chambers around the council presidency: an obscure and largely administrative post that has nonetheless turned out to be the most coveted position of the year.
The presidency, which two-term veteran Richard Conlin cavalierly announced he'd won more than a month ago, was thrown into uncertainty when Jim Compton, a Conlin supporter, resigned. That left the council split 4-4 between Conlin and Jean Godden, a newcomer who enjoys the steadfast support of Conlin adversary (and current council prez) Jan Drago. As of Friday, Conlin and Godden were close to a deal that would give Conlin the presidency; by Monday morning, however, the council had returned to its previous deadlock, which was where it remained until around 11:30 a.m., when Conlin backers got wind of a plan by Godden's supporters to take advantage of a temporary 4-3 majority (Conlin-backer Tom Rasmussen is in Ecuador) and force a vote on the presidency. The city attorney's office confirmed in a memo that it would "be comfortable defending" such a vote, although Licata said it would "violate the spirit of democracy."
So it was that Licata, Peter Steinbrueck, and Conlin spent the morning and early afternoon shuffling between a series of closed-door meetings in Licata's office, then in Steinbrueck's, and finally in Conlin's. (Meanwhile, friends, family, and well-dressed dignitaries were gathering in council chambers for the long-planned celebration.) One hour before the meeting was supposed to start, the three finally emerged with a plan: If Godden's camp tried to force a vote, Conlin's supporters would walk out of the meeting, leaving just four members on the dais—less than a quorum. In one deft move, the trio would cancel the ceremony, embarrass Drago, and give Rasmussen an opportunity to weigh in. Drago, recognizing that such a spectacle would not be "good for the council or the city," agreed to vote against any motion to choose the president Monday, and the whole issue was put on hold until at least next week. And life went on.
What Monday's acrimony will mean for the council in the long term, however, is less than clear. Both Conlin and Godden are compromised by the ugliness of today's political maneuverings and by the lack of majority support on the council for either candidate. "The effectiveness of the presidency is to work collegially, so you don't want to go into it having pissed off nearly half your colleagues," Steinbrueck says. That gives rise, yet again, to the possibility that a third "compromise" candidate, such as Licata, could take the position—a possibility no one, including Licata, is ruling out.
Finding a replacement for Saroja Reddy—the brainy economic analyst who led the council's central staff for the last two years—won't be easy, but a sizable handful of people have reportedly expressed an interest in filling her shoes. Among them: central staffers Geri Beardsley, Norm Schwab, and Ben Noble; and 46th District Democratic Chairman Scott White, a tough, partisan Democrat whose job as King County Council chief of staff is reportedly in jeopardy because of his support for ousted North Seattle Democrat Carolyn Edmonds, who lost to Bob Ferguson.