Political Patronage, Seattle Style

Was Greg Nickels a political patron?

Was Greg Nickels a political patron? (flickr.com)

Inside City Hall, Part 2

I didn’t blow the whistle.

From 2006-2011, while I worked at Seattle City Hall, I saw a lot of obstructive, helpful, stupid, intelligent, bureaucratic, dynamic, cynical and sincere behavior. But only once did I witness something I thought might have broken city laws or ethics rules.

In December 2009, a job popped up on the city’s website. It was notable because the nation was in the depths of the Great Recession. The city of Seattle had laid off workers, cut employees’ hours, imposed mandatory unpaid furloughs and closed the libraries for a week. I was working at Seattle Channel, city government’s TV station, had had my hours sliced in half and was eating my own intestines from the inside out. So I was happily surprised when I saw a new city job in communications, public relations and marketing posted in the last month of the year.

I went to talk it over with Beth Hester, my boss and general manager of Seattle Channel. In 2001, Hester had been part of Greg Nickels’s successful mayoral campaign. Once Nickels was elected, she had worked on his transition team. She joined Seattle Channel as News Director in 2002 (and formed a very successful working relationship with Seattle Channel’s public affairs host C.R. Douglas that produced terrific television). In 2007, Hester got the station’s top job. In other words, she was a well-connected, highly skilled, political operative.

Back to 2009 and the mysterious new city job that caught my interest.

Here’s my memory of it: When I talked to Hester about it, she pulled me into her office and closed the door. Don’t bother applying, she told me. That job, she continued, has been promised to one of Nickels’ loyal staffers.

As I recall, she then explained to me how this game works.

Seattle City government’s roughly 10,000 workers fall into two broad categories. The overwhelming majority of them work for city departments like Seattle City Light, Seattle Department of Transportation, Seattle Public Utilities (water, garbage and recycling) and so on. A few of the city’s employees work directly for the mayor and the individual city councilmembers. For instance, they might be the mayor’s lawyer, press secretary or housing policy wonk. When a sitting mayor or councilmember loses an election or retires, that politician’s direct employees generally lose their current jobs. The new officeholder doesn’t keep on the folks who loyally worked for his or her opponent.

The defeated or retiring politician, however, wants to take care of his own. He, therefore, creates new jobs in the city’s departments and has his mayoral staff hired into those positions. The new job in communications, PR and marketing that had caught my eye was one of these positions.

By the end of December, sure enough, the Nickels’ staffer had the new job. (I’m not naming him/her because I don’t think she/he knew anything about the dirty deal.)

Hester emailed me about the entire episode, “I honestly do not recall the conversation. I do believe that staff working for elected officials gain valuable knowledge, relationships and skills sets making them sought after by departments. In my experience, people move around the city all the time. Just like you did when you moved from [city] council staff to the Seattle Channel.”

When asked for comment, Nickels’ former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis says, “I have no idea why you think I would talk to you about this.”

I had heard of this practice, but coming face-to-face with it gave me a terrific jolt. I was outraged that the mayor, who had just been thrown out by the voters, could play with city money like it was his own. Political loyalty is not a valid reason for people to be handed new jobs. I wanted to do the right thing and call a regulator and expose the whole dirty rotten practice.

But I was too scared. Scared of losing my half-time job and the health insurance that was the sole means of support for my family. Scared of becoming a pariah at work. Scared of making trouble.

That’s what happened to me at city hall: I got beaten down into a scared little man scurrying to protect his crumbs. It happens to a lot of people whether they serve politicians or corporations or petty bosses. I hated myself for my cowardice.

As it turns out, I need not have bothered with all the self-hatred.

Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Committee, is a tough, honest and fair regulator. “You can’t use your city position to primarily benefit an individual at the expense of the city,” he says. But “I don’t think [this scenario] violates the city’s ethics code.”

The city attorney’s office says it doesn’t respond to “hypotheticals.”

The city’s personnel department couldn’t be bothered to respond to my efforts to contact them.

Dmitri Iglitzen, a prominent Seattle labor lawyer (full disclosure: I have been his client), says it would be different if the person hired was somebody’s relative. “That’s nepotism,” he says. Or if the hired person got the job in return for campaign contributions.

Off the record, other people, who knew what they were talking about, said this is a common practice at every level of government—federal, state, county and city. So, George, get over it already.

I don’t care what they say: it still stinks.

Questions, tips, comments: 206-877-2952 or georgehowlandjr@gmail.com

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About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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