Who knew that when we broke the news about Mayor Mike McGinn's recommendation to reject a requested "street vacation" to make room for a Whole Foods Market megaproject in West Seattle, that this would become the burning issue of the primary season? But I guess that's what comes from a mayoral race that has focused more on personality than on actual policy.
State Senator Ed Murray is the latest to jump into the fray, via a statement delivered to PubliCola (we, alas, did not receive a copy—was it something we said?), in which he bluntly described McGinn's actions as "wrong." Citing the city's Comprehensive Plan, McGinn argues that living wages and benefits are a public interest that should be considered before selling a city-owned alley to developers, a position that Murray condemns as an effort to usurp and subvert the established process:
Once again he is dividing people, rather than trying to bring them together. Even though he lacks the authority, he is unilaterally trying to override an extensive review process that included multiple public meetings and approvals from multiple reviews, including by the Seattle Design Commission and the West Seattle Design Review Board. The Design Commission recommended approval of the alley vacation and the West Seattle Design Review Board also recommended approval of the project.
The Mayor has suddenly decided to attack this particular development based on politics. He has usurped the role of the City Council and subverted an impartial process to pursue his own advancement.
To Murray's credit, his remarks aren't as stupidly ill-considered as Peter Steinbrueck's, who amazingly described the mayor's decision as "hypocritical," "abusive," and "perhaps illegal," breathlessly telling the Seattle Times Danny Westneat: “They do this in East Coast cities, and it’s properly called ‘graft and corruption.’ ”
But neither Murray nor Steinbrueck seem to be familiar with the actual process of approving street vacations, which includes a recommendation to the council, up or down, from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), a department under the administration of the mayor. That's all McGinn has done. He has instructed SDOT to recommend against the West Seattle street vacation.
"The city is under no obligation to sell public property to a company that will depress wages and benefits for workers at existing grocery stores in the same neighborhood," McGinn explained in a statement posted this afternoon to his campaign website:
As the Mayor, I had to make a decision on what recommendation I would make to Council. I chose to stand on the side of low wage workers. The Council now has an important discussion in front of them. Will we use the authority we have on street vacations to improve the working conditions of low wage workers? Should we treat the sale of public land the same way we treat public contracting – with a high expectation that our public resources will support good wages and benefits?
As McGinn emphasizes, the final decision is up to the council (and since it does not require an ordinance, the mayor has no veto power). There was nothing remotely illegal or corrupt about the mayor's actions. Indeed, far from usurping and subverting the process, all McGinn actually did was participate in it. Murray and Steinbrueck are free to disagree with McGinn on the substance of the street vacation recommendation. If they want to argue that Whole Foods' non-union jobs are in the public interest—or that promoting living wages and benefits shouldn't be a consideration at all when selling public property to private developers—well, I suppose there are legitimate arguments to make. But when they describe the mayor's actions as somehow improper or extra-legal, um, they clearly don't know what the fuck they are talking about.
As for Steinbrueck's other charge—that McGinn is a "hypocrite" for singling out Whole Foods, well, he just hasn't been paying attention to the broader discussion. McGinn's decision to apply to street vacation requests the economic development standards outlined in Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan—language that clearly instructs officials to seek "a greater proportion of living wage jobs that will have greater benefits"—was never intended to be a one-off.
"We will evaluate all future street vacation requests with the same lens we applied to Whole Foods," McGinn spokesman Robert Cruickshank reassured me this afternoon. That's why in my original post, I dubbed this extension of the notion of public benefit from mere physical infrastructure to include human infrastructure, "The McGinn Doctrine," because it appeared to signal a dramatic shift in policy, not a one-time stray from the norm.
And that's the issue that Murray, at least, carefully avoids. His statement does not speak at all to the substance of McGinn's decision: Whether the wages and benefits of the jobs being created should be considered when weighing the public interest of transferring ownership of public right-of-way to private developers. Murray is silent on that. Presumably, because taking a position would upset one constituency or another. Instead he just attacks as divisive McGinn's efforts to raise the issue at all.