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Originally published October 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 12, 2008 at 12:30 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Greg Nickels and Ron Sims: the power of "no"

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels opposes the Seattle parks levy. King County Executive Ron Sims is not supporting the Sound Transit light-rail package. Who would have thunk it?

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Amid the cacophonous din of so many national and local political campaigns, two fascinating takes on a couple of pricey local ballot measures are often overlooked. At best, they are mere afterthoughts, as if their truth didn't matter.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels opposes the Seattle parks levy on the November ballot. Similarly, King County Executive Ron Sims is not supporting — in his case, a term of art — the enormous Sound Transit light-rail package on the same ballot.

Where did all this self-control and self-restraint come from? These two usually love spendy proposals that build our region — roads, buses, housing levies. They tend to be more tax-friendly than tax-averse.

But all of a sudden, a moment of willpower! Nickels is all but committing heresy in Seattle, a city that loves its parks. He is opposing the $145 million parks measure.

It's not that Nickels has suddenly become anti-tax. He vigorously favors the $73 million property tax levy to fix up the Pike Place Market with core infrastructure and seismic upgrades. Nickels also is a key backer of the very large Sound Transit proposal, which costs around $18 billion. Proposition 1 would expand bus service and light rail to South Snohomish County and the Eastside. My suspicion is Nickels is saying no to parks so he can brag that he opposed at least one tax-increase measure.

The parks levy has the feel of a City Council pushing back and saying it matters, too — it really, really matters.

Nickels is up for re-election next year — so far, not a challenger in sight. The most obvious contender, former Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, tells me repeatedly he is not a candidate in 2009. The other great idea, Mark Sidran, currently chairman of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, says it is unlikely he will challenge the mayor.

But Nickels is running hard anyway. Third terms are tricky. Every pothole unfilled, every rate increase, goes on the incumbent's tab. Nickels already has aggravated constituents by being King Nanny on recycling — and obsessed with garbage. We are going overboard on this topic.

Nickels' line on the parks levy is that he understands voters are feeling financially strapped and he wants to give them a break. Even if it's not much of a break, the mayor agrees with the notion that voters cannot keep saying yes to every spending proposal that comes along.

The parks levy is particularly insidious because backers all but admit there is no year that government should be out of the business of collecting tax revenues for parkland acquisition. An eight-year levy is expiring and so, hurry up, dial 911, tell everyone they must not take even a one-year break.

Land is always becoming more scarce, prices are almost always going up. Seattleites will love their parks every year. Leadership is about picking and choosing, and, gasp, saying no once in a while.

Along comes King County Executive Ron Sims. The man who loved trains isn't exactly saying no — please, such a harsh term — to Sound Transit, though he said no to last year's mega-road-and-light-rail package. He's saying no thanks, not this time. How does neutral sound? In my country, neutral equals no.

But look at it like this: If the executive of the largest county, the place where most choo-choo tracks would go, doesn't support this, what does he know that we don't?

Sims' official answer is he wants a package with more buses right now. At Sims' and the governor's insistence, the plan does include more buses but not enough to meet market demand. He also gets it that voters are overwhelmed by too many "asks" in a crummy economy.

He decided not to campaign against Sound Transit. We call that damning with faint praise.

Sims is also running for re-election in 2009, a fourth term. He has a frisky Great Dane, fellow Democrat and Councilmember Larry Phillips, nipping at his heels. Phillips has been itching — or is it scratching — to become county executive for many years. He said Thursday he hasn't decided yet whether he will run.

It's always best to read actions more than words. If Sims and Nickels are not supporting good-government items on the ballot, those actions serve as guidance.

For all their love of taxes and new projects, these leaders are trying to tell us all something.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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