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City's Dam Stand Makes Waves

by Jim Brunner
Seattle Times - September 7, 2000

It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but the Seattle City Council's resolution in support of breaching four lower Snake River dams to save endangered salmon has spawned criticism from politicians on both sides of the state.

The resolution, which passed unanimously with little fanfare two weeks ago, has since been seized upon as an example of Seattle's arrogance by critics. Even some Seattle lawmakers are now suggesting the council think twice before chiming in on issues that may not directly relate to city business.

Rep. Frank Chopp, a Seattle Democrat who is co-speaker of the state House, has been meeting with council members this week to express his disapproval about the dam resolution and to request that they consult with him before taking similar stands in the future.

"No one can tell them what to do or not to do," Chopp said. "But I think they would benefit from a broader perspective on this."

Sen. Pat Thibaudeau, D-Seattle, also called some council members and noted that the resolution would only enhance already-simmering resentment of lawmakers from Eastern Washington, where the economy has lagged during Seattle's high-tech boom.

That could make it harder to push Seattle's legislative agenda in Olympia, Thibaudeau said.

"It would be helpful if, on issues like this, they thoroughly researched and determined whether or not it's their business," said Thibaudeau. "I'm not so sure they fully understood what repercussions there would be."

The City Council frequently passes resolutions - nonbinding expressions of opinion - to take formal positions on issues over which the council has no direct influence.

Most of the time, those positions are not controversial. But in the case of the dam resolution, what played well among Seattle environmentalists came across as meddling to many in Eastern Washington.

"How would they like it if we decided to take out the Ballard Locks?" Whitman County Commissioner Les Wigen told the Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane last week.

U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., issued a statement saying the resolution reflected the council's "we know best" mentality.

"How easy it must be for downtown Seattle liberals to cast aside the lives and concerns of the people in Eastern Washington's agriculture communities," Gorton said.

The Snake River resolution, sponsored by council members Heidi Wills and Richard Conlin, said that "the city of Seattle does not accept that extinction is an option for lower Snake River salmon." It asked that the four dams be removed and that any negative economic effects on the region be mitigated using federal salmon-recovery dollars.

Although the resolution had no real power, the statement pleased environmentalists, who view dam removal as essential to restoring dwindling salmon runs.

"I'm proud of the City Council for being willing to get out in front on this issue. I'm glad that instead of taking a coward's way out, they did the right thing," said Sara Patton, director of the Northwest Energy Coalition.

Wills said she was sensitive to how the resolution might come across in Eastern Washington, so she delayed it until after the Legislature had adjourned to avoid any consequences for the city's legislative delegation.

"This was so politically charged that there was no good time. But extinction is not an option," Wills said. "We all have a moral and legal obligation to save this icon of our region."

Wills and Conlin argued that Seattle has every right to speak out about the Snake River dams because the city's utility receives a significant portion of its power from the Bonneville Power Administration, which operates them.

While all eight council members who attended the Aug. 21 meeting voted in favor of the Snake River dam resolution, some are now saying it may not have been the best idea, all things considered.

Councilwoman Jan Drago said the resolution was circulated among council members only for a few days before the vote. And with an agenda already packed, Drago admitted she didn't have much time to weigh her vote.

"We don't have relationships, or very strong relationships, with parts of Eastern Washington. This was not a step in the right direction to establish those relations."

"Seattle voters are environmentalists more than they are Democrats and Republicans, so that's the position we are coming from," said Councilman Nick Licata, who met with Chopp on Tuesday. "But I think we have to be aware of the possible unintended consequences, and I don't think we were aware of those."

Conlin said that he believes the council was correct "from a policy standpoint" but that perhaps the resolution didn't make sense politically. "I am going to be more cautious," he said.

The council has also taken heat for a resolution Conlin sponsored protesting a visit by a nuclear submarine during Seafair. That resolution was yanked from this week's council agenda, and Conlin now says he may drop it altogether.

Drago said the latest controversies point to what she sees as a rift in the council. Some newer members, she said, have been spending too much time on issues that don't relate to their core task.

"It's going to take something to shock people into realizing that our job is serving the citizens of Seattle with a budget of over $2 billion," said Drago, now in her seventh year on the council.

In addition, Drago said that past councils would never have fired off letters or proposed resolutions on controversial topics unless all of the members were in agreement.

"That never would have happened before," Drago said. "Now they bring these issues forward and make them acid tests."

Four council members recently sent a letter to the Seattle Police Officers Guild criticizing an award it presented to the officer who fatally shot an armed African-American robbery suspect. And some council members recently joined a call for a new audit of Sound Transit's light-rail costs.

But Licata rejected the argument that those actions were inappropriate. "We can't all agree all the time," he said. "Maybe there was just less diversity of opinion on the City Council in the past."

Metropolitan King County Councilman Dwight Pelz, a former state senator, said lawmakers shouldn't worry too much.

"It goes with the territory. If you're going to be a legislator from the big city, you're going to have to fight through all the quirks Seattle has, and right now, one of those quirks is maybe the City Council," Pelz said.

Jim Brunner
City's Dam Stand Makes Waves
Seattle Times Company, September 7, 2000

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