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Originally published August 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 14, 2008 at 10:27 AM


Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

It's time for a reality check at Seattle's out-of-touch City Hall

On a spring day in 1989, Seattle voters trekked to the polls to protest a whole lot of things — too many skyscrapers downtown, insufficient...

On a spring day in 1989, Seattle voters trekked to the polls to protest a whole lot of things — too many skyscrapers downtown, insufficient parking in the same location, an overload of traffic, endless construction.

The clunkily worded, awkwardly-named CAP initiative imposed height, density and building limits downtown. Many who contributed to the 62-percent "yes" verdict voted specifically to limit such growth. But many others were angry about a variety of things that had built up over the years.

One woman told me at the polls that she and her husband voted for CAP because Seattle was changing too fast. This was the only way they could lodge their protest.

The gentle, polite citizens of Seattle do get angry once in a while. I believe another CAP-like moment is brewing while the City Council and Mayor Greg Nickels exist in an altered state. Their disconnect with regular citizens on matters of affordability is profound.

This is the time for a group of council reformers to gather and run a slate of candidates in 2009. We need people who understand higher costs are hurting average citizens. We need people to unite to oppose the council's or mayor's pet projects and send the message that people are tapped out.

As you may have heard, there will be three large asks on the November ballot — millions for parks and open space in Seattle, millions more to improve basics at Pike Place Market and billions to expand Sound Transit bus and light rail.

Each of these items has a constituency. Heck, they all may pass, though I certainly hope not. But pause for a moment and think about the no votes. Most will be cast by people who have had it with city spending and relentless taxing to do more of it. You can hear their protests in letters to the editor, but you won't hear it from most City Council members because they haven't a clue.

Keep in mind, today's screed is not about any of the above items on its own. It's all the spending wrapped together. Everyone loves parks, the market, more transit options.

Still, the ballot measures are only part of the equation. Our undaunted council and mayor are discussing a solid-waste rate increase of 46 percent over the next two years, a water rate jump of 40 percent over three years.

Here come the arguments. The city hasn't raised garbage rates for a long time. Seattle's rates are not all that high. Blah blah blah. Is there no one at City Hall with a calculator, a real job and a sense of cost creep for average citizens?

I rarely hear a council member — with the possible exceptions of Richard McIver and Jan Drago, and a belated yelp this week from Richard Conlin — who mentions that runaway gasoline and food costs and rampant City Hall spending are forcing middle- and low-income families out of the city.

There is little pushback. That's why we need reformers to start thinking now about 2009 council elections. This council is completely out of touch. There is room for challengers and newcomers to potential open seats who promise to spend less and propose fewer projects.

The mayor's one concession to this nascent movement is that he opposes the park levy because he says you can't tax people ad nauseam in a recession. But he is also for almost every other increase. He, too, needs a challenger. A real one.

We need city leaders who understand that cities can invest in infrastructure in rosy times and chill a little in a downturn. Hello, anybody home? This is a downturn. Food banks are struggling to keep shelves stocked — demand for help is up, donations are down. People are hurting but they are not being heard.

The mayor and council this year also passed a 20-cent tax on paper and plastic bags at grocery, drug and convenience stores.

It's a minor charge and the argument behind it for reducing waste and litter is compelling. The other day, however, someone finally pushed back. Independent grocery stores are now collecting signatures to annul the tax.

I would like to see a council member with old-fashioned green eye shade and an eraser — you know, someone with the gumption and guts to cut something.

For example, the move to collect kitchen waste and charge higher garbage rates starting next year could be postponed, thereby reducing the garbage-rate increase.

Voters should turn down the parks levy because we can't have everything all the time. There will always be a need for parks, always a way to spend the money.

Our well-intended citizens are struggling and it will take something like a CAP-like grass-roots protest to wake up the oblivious electeds who work at Seattle City Hall.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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