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Originally published Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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After storm of criticism, Seattle mayor reverses no-salt policy for snow

The snow has melted, but Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is still trudging through the political aftermath. At a City Hall news conference Wednesday...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle's new salt policy

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced Wednesday the city will reverse its decade-old policy and use road salt to melt ice in future storms. City officials had refused to use salt, saying it was bad for the environment.

The mayor set certain conditions: Salt will be used on hills, arterials or bus snow routes, and on routes to hospitals and other emergency facilities when at least 4 inches of snow is predicted, if ice is predicted or if extreme cold is expected to last more than three days.

The snow has melted, but Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is still trudging through the political aftermath.

At a City Hall news conference Wednesday, Nickels — whose storm-time decision making has been criticized in neighborhood conversations, newspapers, blogs and talk radio — acknowledged "mistakes" in the city's response.

He reversed one of the city's most controversial policies and said road crews will now use salt during major storms, something barred for a decade because of environmental concerns.

Nickels stuck by the "B" grade he gave the city last week. But his tone was more empathetic as he attempted to assert leadership going forward.

At one point, he leaned into the microphone:

"I'm in charge of the city's response," Nickels said. "We will make sure that we will learn from any mistakes that were made."

Snowstorms can bury mayors' political fortunes. Nickels is up for re-election this year, and he no doubt hopes voters' memories are short — that they forget rutted, impassable streets, hours waiting in vain for a bus and garbage cans piled high.

In 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic's response to a snowstorm cost him re-election. He said on television that side streets were cleared, but many weren't. His opponent, Jane Byrne, filmed her campaign ads in snowbanks to remind residents, unpleasantly, of Bilandic.

Denver Mayor Bill McNichols lost his re-election bid after a 1982 Christmas Eve blizzard hit while crews were short staffed for the holidays.

For now, Nickels is trying to get ahead of criticism.

"It does look like they're feeling the heat," said Cathy Allen, a local Democratic political strategist. The news conference indicates Nickels is concerned about public impressions, she said.

Allen agreed, though, with political consultant Christian Sinderman that Seattle's storms won't have a lasting political effect on Nickels.

"There might be some frustration, but politically that dissipates as fast as the snow melts when they see that something is being done about it," Sinderman said.

Among those furious with Nickels is Patrick Baroch.

He was stranded in his Delridge home when he saw the mayor on TV last week report major streets were cleared. "That was simply not true, and anyone who went outside could see that," he said. "The street clearing that he claimed on the 24th was not the reality in any part of the city, not even downtown, and so ... that 'B' grade really angered a lot of people."

Baroch started a Facebook group of residents who feel the mayor's response was inadequate. By Wednesday afternoon, more than 130 people had joined.

In South Seattle, Matt Surowiecki Jr. watched from his steel-stud company as cars high-centered on frozen ruts on the unplowed Martin Luther King Jr. Way South days after the storm.

He's normally a fan of the mayor, but he questioned the city's decision not to use salt.

"It seems to me that the snow shut down the city," Surowiecki said. "After the third day, the city should be operational enough to let people get to work."

You can't blame all of that on the mayor, said Teresa Lord Hugel, executive director of the University District Chamber of Commerce.

"Here's my question: Why is it that it's always up to the city? I mean, what's wrong with a good old snow shovel?" she said. "The reality is, I don't know who's responsible in a major disaster like this."

The issue about road salt put Nickels in a particularly tough spot. His campaign Web site aggressively touts the national reputation he's built as an environmentalist mayor.

But the environmentally motivated policy to use sand instead of salt seemed impractical, said City Councilmember Nick Licata, especially when there didn't seem to be any scientific backing.

"When you wrap yourself in a green blanket, you've got to have some clothes underneath it," he said. "This is what gives green a bad name. You've got to balance it with practical analysis and you've got to defend your position with some facts."

But he said he doesn't think there's enough public outrage to oust Nickels over his snowstorm response.

No major candidate has announced an intention to challenge the two-term mayor. Developer Greg Smith has said he's considering a run.

Nickels said Wednesday he was still concerned about salt's environmental impact, and that's why his new policy allows its use only in extreme conditions and only on major roads, big hills, and bus routes.

The City Council's first order of business Monday will be a report on the city's response to the snowstorms. In a statement this week, council President Richard Conlin described having to "hike" to City Hall for work during the storm.

Conlin is doing what political consultants and others say Nickels needs to do, as well: convince voters that he feels their pain — and he'll do things differently next time.

"The grade B was pure fantasy land," said Licata. Other elected officials were "out of tune," as well, he said. "I think that makes people as angry as anything else. There just seems to be a disconnect between the electeds and the public on the seriousness of this storm."

News researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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