In a pony show that consumed every floor of City Hall today, Mayor Mike McGinn enumerated the laws allegedly broken by city council president Richard Conlin when he signed off on a state study of the proposed deep-bore tunnel yesterday. McGinn says the mayor, as the city’s executive, and his officers reserve that right, not members of the city’s council.
“This is a serious violation of our city charter,” McGinn said.
He pointed to several provisions in city law separating powers of the mayor’s office and the council, and a state statute that vests power in the city’s department of transportation relating to the tunnel project (three of which are listed in this post). McGinn said he received the state’s Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS)—the penultimate evaluation of the tunnel’s benefits and ramifications—on Monday and needed more time to figure out if the city would sign as a partner on the project. “It is not within authority of the council president to take an action not by ordinance,” McGinn told reporters.
But Conlin, in a press conference after McGinn's press conference, said he consulted city, state, and federal lawyers who told him to sign the document. “I am quite confident that the members of the law department would not tell me to violate the city charter,” Conlin told reporters. If he hadn’t signed, Conlin said, the city could lose funding for city staff working on the tunnel. However, it’s not clear if the legal advice will stand muster. City attorney Pete Holmes, who said he would elaborate today, has yet to respond to numerous requests to provide his legal opinion. “I understand that they are looking into it,” Conlin said. Holmes is slated to make a statement later today.
At issue is whether the City of Seattle remains a co-lead on the project. As a co-lead, Seattle has a stronger role in influencing the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. “The benefit is that we are helping the design,” says city council member Mike O’Brien. “We at least have access to discussions about the design process going forward.”
However, the city may enjoy benefits by dropping its status as a co-lead, specifically being able to appeal parts of the project under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). That autonomy to appeal, says the People’s Waterfront Coalition's Cary Moon, “guarantees the right to local communities to protect their own interests.” She cites potential unmanageable traffic in Pioneer Square, damage to historic buildings, and other impacts that may not be fully studied or understood. The study will continue either way, McGinn says, with or without Seattle as a partner in the study.
Does it make a difference? Perhaps not. “Nothing that Richard did yesterday or the mayor said yesterday stops us from being able to review it and make a decision,” says O’Brien. Still, he notes that he’s the only city council member who read the tome of information. “We should review it before we sign it,” he says. (However, it can't be very different than an earlier draft released pursuant to a record request by The Stranger this summer).
Both McGinn and Conlin hope the other one will have a change of heart. “I hope that when [Conlin] has a chance to look at this that he will be able to recognize that he should retract his signature,” McGinn said. And then minutes later, Conlin said, “I hope the mayor will come around and understand that this was the right action to take.”
Fortunately, there’s a chance that everyone gets their cake, eats it too, and shoves pie in each other’s faces. By signing, Conlin may have effectively forced the state to stand by while this knot of city hall politics is sorted out. (The state's urgency also appears fabricated—it has already allowed several delays of six months to a year; a week is without consequence.) If Conlin’s signature is found invalid, the mayor may get his week to decide whether to sign it himself—which he wanted all along—or decide if the city should revoke its status as a co-lead on the project.