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Saturday, June 15, 2013 - Page updated at 09:30 p.m.

Aide’s pay ignored in McGinn’s ‘free’ gun meltdown

By Jim Brunner and Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times staff reporters

When Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced an initiative to melt down guns from a city buyback program into plaques bearing schoolkids’ messages of peace, he said the effort would be wholly privately funded.

“No taxpayer dollars,” McGinn said at a May 7 news conference announcing the Weapons to Words program.

But in attendance was a part-time city staffer McGinn’s office already had hired, whose primary job is to coordinate that effort.

Crystal Fincher started in the mayor’s office March 1, according to McGinn’s office. She is being paid about $35 an hour to work 20 to 25 hours a week through the end of the year.

Until February, she had worked as the political fundraiser for McGinn’s re-election campaign.

McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus said Friday it was unfair to characterize Fincher’s work as a taxpayer cost of the Weapons to Words project.

“I think that’s kind of twisting it a little bit, honestly,” he said. “By that definition, nothing is fully privately funded.”

The actual expense of melting down the guns and turning them into artwork is being covered by local steel companies and Chihuly Studio, Pickus noted.

Pickus said it isn’t the only program Fincher has worked on. Her initial job for the city involved coordinating another highly publicized mayor’s office initiative to place traffic cameras in school zones.

Fincher’s job is to reach out to schools and summer youth programs to promote Weapons to Words and solicit youth quotations against gun violence, according to Pickus. The city also has a website where kids can submit messages on their own. The deadline for submissions is June 30.

Once the deadline has passed, Fincher will work with others to evaluate and choose which submissions will be inscribed onto the peace plaques, Pickus said. Under the mayor’s plan, the plaques will be installed in city parks and public places.

Fincher has previously worked primarily as a campaign manager and fundraiser. She ran Bobby Forch’s failed City Council campaign against Jean Godden in 2011, worked as a fundraiser for former Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton in 2010 and 2011, and she ran state Rep. Eric Pettigrew’s re-election campaign in 2010.

From 2007 through 2011, she ran her own business, Fincher Consulting, which specialized in campaign management, fundraising events and social media, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In an interview Friday, Fincher said she stopped doing fundraising work for the McGinn campaign as soon as she was hired by the city. Fincher said she, like many city staffers, is continuing to aid McGinn’s re-election effort on personal time, including co-hosting an upcoming campaign meet-and-greet with the mayor.

For most of the past year, Fincher was listed as the McGinn re-election campaign’s fundraiser. She was paid $6,700 between July and February — a relatively meager salary for that type of work.

Those payments ceased in February before Fincher took the city job. McGinn said he has relied on volunteers since Fincher’s departure, and his campaign said this week it had recently hired a new fundraiser.

Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, said he did not believe Fincher’s hiring violated any ethics rules.

It is a common practice for politicians to hire campaign aides, Barnett noted.

“The only way I could see where the line was crossed is if they were patently unqualified,” he said.

McGinn has seen the gun-buyback program as a way to showcase his concern about gun violence. It also may be a winner for him politically. Despite his mostly poor approval numbers, a majority of respondents in a KING-TV poll last month gave the mayor high marks for the gun-buyback effort.

But the Weapons to Words program has led to political embarrassment.

In May, McGinn announced that the 716 guns collected at a January buyback would be melted down and turned into plaques that would be inscribed with messages of hope for a nonviolent future written by Seattle schoolchildren.

Within days, KIRO radio learned that the guns already had been melted down.

The mayor acknowledged he knew at the time he announced the program that the guns had already been destroyed, but he said he decided the accompanying news release was accurate and that the city would transform the guns acquired in a future gun-buyback program for the Weapons to Words plaques.

McGinn also considered announcing a second gun buyback on the anniversary of a 2012 shooting at Cafe Racer that left four dead. The plan was scrapped when his staff decided it might be insensitive to the families of the victims. The cafe closed for the day.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner


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