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Originally published Friday, September 24, 2010 at 12:32 PM

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McGinn demands Conlin rescind tunnel signature

In a City Hall power struggle, Mayor Mike McGinn said Friday that City Council President Richard Conlin broke the city charter by signing a Highway 99 tunnel environmental report Thursday — and called on both Conlin and Gov. Chris Gregoire to rescind the signing.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes spent Friday trying to mediate the staredown between Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council over who has authority to sign documents for the proposed Highway 99 tunnel.

In the meantime, it still wasn't clear whether Council President Richard Conlin's signature on a draft environmental-impact statement was allowed under city law.

"Attorneys are researching legal issues as they arise in the course of these negotiations," said a statement from Holmes' office Friday.

The dispute arose late Thursday when Conlin signed the document on behalf of the city after McGinn missed an afternoon deadline.

The mayor was seeking an extra week to review the tunnel papers, saying he was busy planning a 2011 budget.

At midweek, Ron Judd, director of tunnel outreach for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), was negotiating with city transportation director Peter Hahn to allow more time for McGinn.

But state tunnel managers decided at 4 p.m. Thursday to enforce the deadline, then accepted Conlin's offer to sign at 5 p.m.

Afterward, the mayor, a longtime tunnel detractor, accused Conlin of violating the separation-of-powers clauses in the city charter, and Friday he called on Conlin and Gov. Chris Gregoire to rescind the signature.

"It doesn't work that if you really, really love a project, you get to ignore the law," McGinn said.

Holmes, an elected official, met with both McGinn and Conlin on Friday, and is still studying the legal questions, said Kimberly Mills, the city attorney's spokeswoman.

The $2 billion tunnel, to be drilled from Sodo to South Lake Union by 2016, would be the world's widest single-bore tube at 54 feet diameter, in a seismic zone through watery soils. It's the riskiest piece of the $3.1 billion replacement for the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct.

WSDOT expects to finish the final report next July, about six months after signing a tunnel-construction contract, but before major work begins.

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Meaning unclear

While the incident is the latest sign of a strained relationship between the mayor and council, what it means for the tunnel is unclear.

Conlin said he needed to sign, or risk losing Seattle's role in helping write the final report as a "co-lead" with WSDOT. Also, the state funds 16 city staffers working on Highway 99 issues, and he feared those would have been lost, he said.

Those state-funded city employees work on more than just environmental studies, and were an "investment" for WSDOT to get timely street and utility permits from Seattle early next year, Judd said Friday. So they still have a role, though Judd couldn't say yet if it will change.

McGinn said Friday that because he believes Conlin's signature wasn't legal, he no longer considers the city a co-lead on environmental studies, but that staff would still monitor the highway project. A bigger issue was trust. The state is "not a worthy partner on the project," he said.

But the mayor said he has no intent to file lawsuits.

WSDOT managers say it wasn't their job to decide who has power to sign the environmental papers — that's a city attorney decision, said Judd, who considers Conlin's name valid unless Holmes finds otherwise. WSDOT is striving to meet an Oct. 28 publication date for the draft study, followed by a 45-day public-comment period, Judd said.

It's possible the council might hold an open meeting soon to ratify Conlin's act through a resolution or ordinance, said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, transportation committee chair.

Extension denied

Judd acknowledged he considered an extension, but he and tunnel managers were swayed against it by Thursday afternoon conversations at City Hall, when pro-tunnel council members questioned the mayor's intent.

Hahn, the city transportation director, couldn't assure Judd that McGinn would sign, even a week from now; the mayor said he is concerned that the report would support a predetermined outcome, favoring a tunnel.

Toward late afternoon Conlin, a project supporter, said he received advice from both a senior city attorney's staffer and a state attorney that it was OK to sign, so he stepped in.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw called Conlin statesmanlike, for thwarting what she considered a stall tactic by the mayor.

Rasmussen said: "My suspicion is this is a ploy to thwart the EIS [environmental] process, particularly since his staff, the SDOT staff, has been working on this project for months."

Councilmember Mike O'Brien, an environmentalist and tunnel skeptic, said he's not sure it even matters as it's not clear whether the city would have more clout as a co-lead through negotiations, or by bringing pressure from outside.

"It's a little bit of a nonevent," O'Brien said.

"Some folks may have overstepped their ground out of fear and mistrust. I don't think either of them was trying to do anything evil. ... I don't think the mayor was trying to stall the project by waiting a week. I don't think Richard Conlin was trying to overtake the palace by signing it.

"Only in Seattle would we have a coup over who signs an environmental-impact statement."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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