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Separation of Powers? What's that?




I live in Washington State, just outside of Seattle, and follow local politics pretty closely. The big drama over the last 24 hours has been whether or not the President of the City Council had the authority to sign a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the city.


Seattle has an Executive, the Mayor, whose job is to execute the laws and manage the city on a day to day basis. The Mayor oversees all departments that are not specifically given to another body for oversight, and the Mayor is the top elected official in the city. There is also a city council, which is made of representatives from several districts throughout the city. Among themselves, they elect a President for the council. They are the Legislative body of the city, and draft all laws.


The squak started over a project that is doomed to cause drama wherever it goes: the Deep Bore Tunnel in downtown Seattle. We have an old, elevated highway that is crumbling. In the last earthquake, the elevated highway (the Alaskan Way Viaduct) was severely damaged, and its life expectancy is very short. There were several plans to replace it, but eventually, the state and a group of politicians forced through a plan to bore a tunnel under the city and build an underground highway to replace the elevated one.


The current Mayor ran on a platform opposing this option. He made it very clear that he would oppose it once elected, and would try to support something else. Well, before he took office, the final plan was rammed through.


Once the plan was agreed to, and signed, the next step was deciding what the impact of the project would be on the environment. This study took several months to complete, and now the two political groups (the State and the City) are debating which facts are correct, and which ones to present in the final Environmental Impact Study. Signing the draft would make it the official EIS.


That's what got us to yesterday, when the Mayor asked the State for another week to continue evaluating the EIS. Per the Mayor, the State originally agreed, but then revoked that agreement at the last moment, giving the city 15 minutes to sign the agreement or to lose their seat at the table in future decision making meetings. The state then called the Council President, who is a well known public supporter of the tunnel project, and told him he had 15 minutes to sign or to lose out. The Council President then called the city attorney, spoke to the Chief of Staff, and says that he was told his signature would be fine and legal to represent the city. He signed the document.


Now, the Mayor is saying the Council President violated the city charter and several other laws and provisions; the council president is saying he saved the city and kept it as an equal partner in the project moving forward; and the state is sitting quietly, watching to see who comes out on top. The City attorney will have a formal comment this afternoon.


In my opinion, the Council President clearly violated the law and his role as the President of the Legislative branch of the city's government. It is beyond his authority to sign anything representing the city. And he should know that.


It doesn't matter that he thought the Mayor was driving the city into a ruinous situation. He exceeded his authority. Had he called for a special meeting of the council and passed legislation ordering the Mayor to sign, or removing the decision from the Mayor's authority, that would be different, and would have been within his prerogative. That's not what he did though.


Hopefully, the city attorney will call it out as illegal and the state will come back to the table and play fair, but they might not. We might see a situation where the Mayor and the City sue the state. Wouldn't that be fun? :biggrin:



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