At yesterday’s reception following his election as president of the City Council, I asked Richard Conlin what his biggest challenge was for the coming year. He cited renewal of the city’s Pro Parks Levy, first passed in November 2000. When I observed that the mayor had shown little interest in re-upping, Conlin said, “He doesn’t like the idea.” Conlin has made no secret of his desire to see more backbone from the Council, and now his undertaking has a hot-button issue.
You don’t have to look very far around Seattle to see the benefits of the $198.2 million levy. Virtually every city park has gotten some enhancement, whether it be murals, new bathrooms or a near-makeover such as daylighting Ravenna. But the process has been frequently contentious, with open-space advocates, civic activists and neighborhood groups butting heads with Parks Department officials over insidious commercialization, including plastic grass, leasing of public buildings to private entities and favoring money-making organized athletics over more traditional but non-revenue producing uses. Parks policies have proven a flash point for community controversy, including tree-cutting in Occidental Park, concerts in Gas Works Park, field lighting and warehouse-leasing in Magnuson Park, fake grass at Loyal Heights and the notorious Woodland Park Zoo parking garage, where Parks was the city’s partner with the non-profit, private Zoo Society.
In many cases, Parks ran roughshod over citizen opinion and was later found to have violated the law or public process. With the departure of longtime director Ken Bounds early last year and overhaul of the Parks Board, fresh air seems the rule of the day. Renewal of the levy, which Conlin expects to see on the November ballot, is a politically bold but risky move. When I mentioned the contentiousness around Parks, Conlin admitted, “It’s something we’re going to have to work with.” Whether the process heals some still-festering wounds, or merely rubs salt in them, will attest to Conlin’s and the Council’s political adeptness. No one wants to see parks fiscally hamstrung, but the levy could provide a negotiating wedge for the public to ensure a transparent and fair, even if rocky, process for determining parks policies.
The move also could highlight Conlin’s own generally underappreciated political skills. While not committing to any particular office, Conlin already has begun raising funds for a 2009 candidacy that his fans hope will be for the mayor’s office. Backing the levy is a brilliant move in that sense. It will provide a high-profile issue and political test-bed for Conlin. It puts the mayor in a tricky position: If he actively opposes the levy he’ll look anti-civic and hypocritical (“Mr. Green Opposes Public-Space Funding”). If he does a 180 all of a sudden he’ll look like he’s not only flip-flopping but merely following Conlin’s astute lead.
A co-founder of Sustainable Seattle first elected to the Council in 1997 on a strong environment/sustainability platform, Conlin also is in a position to challenge some of the mayor’s inconsistencies of promoting unbridled development while pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At nearly every level, from the cars he drives to the trees he cuts down (while announcing massive stick-tree plantings, natch), the Nickels persona is fraught with hypocrisy. A lapdog media airbrushes Nickels’ flim-flammery, but a resilient City Council led by its new president could embarrass the mayor when called for. Significantly, neither Nickels nor a mayoral proxy was evident at the going-away party for Peter Steinbrueck last month, or yesterday’s swearing-in reception.
Beyond any mayoral implications, though, there’s a sense that with global warming and green initiatives driving much of public policy, especially in Seattle, Conlin’s time has come. Over the year’s he’s been a consistent advocate for the environment and the little guy in city politics. He’s done far more behind-the-scenes maneuvering than he gets credit for. He’s shown an ability to work with a variety of constituencies, including downtown developers, in forging effective compromises. And when he’s been crossed, he hasn’t gotten arrogant or rattled. I’ve never seen Conlin get really mad. But I have seen him get even. In throwing down the gauntlet as Council president and coming to the game with certified green credentials, he’s daring the mayor to practice what he preaches. It’s going to be an interesting next two years.