Pages from a Notebook
By Jean Godden
A group of us -- former Seattle City Councilmembers -- met with Mayor Jenny Durkan on a recent rainy weekday. Mayor Durkan said the meeting was "off the record." But she didn't use that key phrase until we had donned our raincoats and were walking out the door.
As anyone who has made a living covering City Hall knows, the words "off the record" need to come before, not after, the fact. Perhaps I was taking unfair advantage of the mayor by wearing two hats: as a former Seattle councilmember and, presently, as a columnist for Westside Seattle (think community papers from Ballard to Burien).
To be honest: I didn't mean to blindside the mayor, although I was openly carrying a weapon: my reporter's notebook. And I was, as always, taking random notes. My note-taking practice -- some call it a neurotic addiction -- has landed me in trouble in the past.
When I was a councilmember, I always took notes during public hearings, even when commenters were wildly off topic (like calling us "Nazis") or when commentators veered into predictable soak-the-rich rhetoric.
While I was busy taking notes for future review, my fellow councilmembers had other ways of passing lengthy public hearings. Some councilmembers (names withheld to protect the guilty) stole time to catch up on emails, write thank-you notes and check scores during Mariners' games.
One councilmember used lulls in public comment time to add chapters to his soon-to-be published book. Another councilmember once proposed that he and I write alternate pages of a murder mystery. To be collegial, I contributed a couple of pages, but then decided it was too risky. (Imagine the headlines if our project had been discovered.)
But I digress. I set out to describe an encounter between former councilmembers and the new mayor. The meeting was meant as a chance to explore problems facing the city and to offer suggestions, drawing on lessons learned from past experience. Little was discussed that wasn't on everyone's list of current issues.
The half dozen councilmembers touched on the city budget and the difficulty of stretching revenues to cover needed services. One councilmember pointed out that the average Seattleite earns less than $50,000 a year and has difficulty paying ever-mounting property taxes. Yet, even in the best of times, there is never enough in the city's coffers to pay for everything deemed necessary or desirable. This is doubly true when the tide of homelessness overwhelms our ability to provide. There is frustration over increasing taxes, pressing needs and scant new services.
Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope. For instance, Amazon recently set an example by voluntarily linking with Mary's Place, a homeless service provider. If only there were more instances of successful businesses teaming up to help the less fortunate.
Skipping to another topic, the mayor acknowledged the city's acute traffic problems. Mobility has become a nowhere word. Meanwhile major traffic-killing projects are underway. Ahead are the teardown of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, displacement over the massive Convention Center addition and the crush of buses soon to be routed outside the transit tunnel. It's a recipe for gridlock in a city that already has snarls, backups and constant congestion.
Add to other transportation woes the fact that Washington drivers have recently been named "fifth worst in the nation" ranked along with California, Minnesota, South Carolina and Utah. It's my own opinion -- open to argument -- that Seattle drivers are actually some of the best. What led to our "worst driver" ranking are the many newcomers, still learning how to deal with rain-soaked streets, bus-only lanes, four-way stops and impromptu diversions.
Finally, the emeritus councilmembers and the mayor talked about the opportunity gap, the educational disparity between white students and students of color. That gap, discussed, deplored and sometimes tackled, has persisted despite decades of effort. There's despair but there's also good news: That almost intractable gap has seized the mayor's full attention.
The former councilmembers -- who together represented 62 years of service -- left the mayor's office convinced that the city's 56th mayor, although faced with serious problems and challenges, has a hearty resolve. With determination and backing, she appears to have what it takes to keep Seattle moving forward. But, of course, as we know (wink, wink), that meeting was belatedly designated "off the record."