Mike McGinn made his opposition to the Big Bore tunnel a central theme of his mayoral campaign, so it’s little surprise that the media remains focused on the mayor’s continued opposition as the cost overrun controversy comes to a head. But is this focus misplaced?
That’s what I started wondering after a long conversation with Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien on Friday, in which he emphasized how lonely he was on the council in advocating for a more cautious approach on the tunnel project. According to O’Brien, there are eight firm votes for signing a contract with the state, even with the Legislature’s odious (if possibly unenforceable) cost overrun provision in place. O’Brien remain’s the lone dissenter.
That means, even if the mayor were to refuse to sign a contract, vetoing the authorizing ordinance, there are likely eight firm votes on the council for overriding the mayor… and, well, only six votes are needed. And you wonder why council president Richard Conlin appears so confident?
One of the frequent complaints about former Mayor Greg Nickels was that he acted in a bullying, unilateral manner, but if he did, it was only with the acquiescence of the council. Unlike some other cities, our charter does not create a “strong mayor” system; in fact, power is pretty evenly split between the executive and legislative branches. It just often appeared to be a strong mayor system, partially due to the political attitude and skill of Mayor Nickels (and his consigliere Tim Ceis), and partially due to the individual councilmembers’ inability to work together as a meaningful check and balance.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and all that.
But with Mayor McGinn still learning the ropes, and seemingly so at odds with eight of nine councilmembers, there’s really not much he can do to procedurally monkey-wrench the contract. His cooperation would be preferable, but it’s really not necessary.
I’m not ready to write off Mayor McGinn any more than I’m ready to declare a new councilmanic renaissance; in time, McGinn could still prove to be just as big a bully as Nickels, while this council proves just as incapable of sustaining political coherence as those of our recent past.
But for the moment at least, the political dynamic has changed. We in the media might not have fully recognized it, and neither, possibly, has the mayor, but when it comes to the tunnel contract (and barring an initiative), it is the council who is driving the train, and the mayor this time, who just appears to be along for the ride.