Ethics questions over city job held by mayor-elect’s spouse
Michael Shiosaki, Seattle Mayor-elect Ed Murray’s husband, works for the city’s parks department. He got an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission almost a year ago that he could avoid a conflict of interest with the mayor. But some neighborhood activists question that.
Seattle Times staff reporter
It’s a very good year when meeting President Obama and his wife, Michelle, at the White House Christmas party is not the highlight.
The highlight for Michael Shiosaki, 52, was his August marriage to longtime partner and now Seattle mayor-elect, Ed Murray, in a formal Episcopal ceremony witnessed by about 250 cheering family and friends.
A close second would be Murray’s election in November. The couple were waiting for results at their Capitol Hill home when campaign workers in the kitchen started screaming. Within minutes, a security detail from the Seattle Police Department arrived to escort the couple to the election-night victory party, where in addition to chants of “Ed, Ed, Ed,” there were chants of “Michael, Michael, Michael.”
“Since that moment, everything has changed,” Shiosaki said in an interview earlier this week about his new life in the public spotlight.
“Ed’s been in politics for a long time and had statewide visibility because of being out as a gay legislator, but this is at another level — or two.”
The higher profile also has made Shiosaki the subject of ethics queries and pointed questions from Seattle neighborhood activists over the potential for a conflict of interest because of his job as director of planning and development for the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department.
He reports to acting Parks Superintendent Christopher Williams.
An email circulated in advance of a December breakfast meeting of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition posed, among a long list of funding questions facing the parks department, the following:
“What will be the role of the Mayor’s husband, Michael Shiosaki, already one of five top staff in the (parks) department. Will their ‘pillow talk’ undercut the authority and effectiveness of any Superintendent, whether that person is Mr. Williams or someone new?”
Before Murray declared his candidacy for mayor a year ago, Shiosaki sought the advice of Seattle ethics director Wayne Barnett about whether he would have to give up his 12-year career with the city and a job he said he loves.
Shiosaki holds a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Washington and worked for 11 years as a parks planner with the city of Bellevue before taking a job in Seattle.
Barnett said he told him no, that Shiosaki could create a “firewall” between himself and Murray by not talking about the campaign at work or being involved in it on city time.
Now that Murray is about to become mayor, Barnett is finalizing an advisory opinion that the responsibility falls on Murray to avoid any decisions that affect Shiosaki’s employment, such as compensation or promotion.
The couple are free to talk about city business, even parks issues, Barnett said, as long as the city’s interests aren’t harmed.
That doesn’t satisfy critics such as Gail Chiarello, president of the Hawthorne Hills Community Council.
“Come on. You don’t have a firewall when you’re lying in bed with someone,” she said. “The appearance is not good. It raises questions.”
Williams, who has worked with Shiosaki over 18 years, described him as the “consummate professional” and an integral part of the parks leadership team.
“The Michael I know will work hard to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest,” he said.
Williams noted that during the campaign, if people asked Shiosaki how it was going, “he demurred.”
Shiosaki reiterates that he won’t be exerting influence over Murray on parks issues.
“I’m not going to work around Christopher Williams or the lines of authority within the department,” he said.
Shiosaki grew up in the Spokane Valley with the example of his father’s public service. Fred Shiosaki, a decorated World War II veteran and a chemist by profession, worked for the city of Spokane and served on the boards of the state Ecology Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department rededicated its Eastern Region headquarters in Spokane in his name in 2012.
Though reserved by nature, Michael Shiosaki hasn’t stepped away from being an advocate over the past two decades with Murray for gay rights and gay marriage.
The couple posed on the steps of the state Capitol in 1998 to show what a committed relationship looked like and to argue for laws against discrimination.
Shiosaki said he understands there will be public scrutiny and criticism of his role at the parks department and, inevitably, of Murray’s decisions as mayor.
Guiding both of them, he said, is their commitment to public service.
“It isn’t about being a bureaucrat. It’s about giving back. We feel very fortunate to have this opportunity,” he said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @lthompsontimes