Morning Crank: “I Just Don’t Think It’s a Big Deal.”

1. Yesterday, new Mayor Tim Burgess announced he was hiring Eli Sanders—an old Stranger colleague of mine—as his deputy communications director and speechwriter. Sanders, who writes feature stories and comments on national politics for the Stranger, will return to his job at the paper in November and write about what he learned during his ten weeks on the city payroll. (He will also continue to host the Stranger’s Blabbermouth podcast while working for Burgess). In his Slog post about his new temporary gig, Sanders writes, “I’ve often wondered… what it’s actually like on the inside.”  Now Burgess is giving him the chance to find out, and Seattle taxpayers will be picking up the tab.

Burgess says he chose Sanders because “I respect him. He’s a talented writer, I trust him, and I wanted to do something different in terms of not just another person who’s been writing in government. I wanted a new perspective—a new, outside set of ideas— and he’s capable of delivering.”

City hall staffers and others who work with the mayor’s office are understandably wondering whether it will be possible to hold sensitive conversations with Burgess in the future, given that all conversations in Sanders’ presence will effectively be on the record. (Sanders writes that he told Burgess, “If I do this, I’ll be writing about the experience afterward. Everyone will have to know that going in. And I’ll be coming back to The Stranger with a story. “) Sanders and Burgess got to know each other back in 2012, when Sanders wrote a long, mostly laudatory piece about the council member, who went on to run for mayor the following year.

Asked about the wisdom of embedding a reporter in his office and entrusting him with confidential information, Burgess says, “We have an understanding about confidentiality parameters with Eli—what he can and can’t write about, who he can and can’t quote. We’ve worked all that out.” Burgess says people will be reminded of those parameters whenever Sanders is in the room, adding, “I just don’t think it’s a big deal.” Reporters go to work in government jobs and then write about it afterward all the time, Burgess pointed out. That’s true. However, I can think of no other time when a reporter has gone on temporary leave from his journalism job to work for an elected official with the express purpose of using the temporary gig as material for an “eye-opening” story about “what it’s actually like on the inside” of City Hall.

Sanders didn’t return my call for comment, but as a reporter, I understand the appeal of his new assignment—dipping one’s toe into city politics for a couple of months, at what I’m guessing is a significantly higher salary (Sanders’ predecessor in the job, Katherine Bush, made $127,650 a year), is a plum reporting gig. (In his post, Sanders calls it  “experiential journalism.”) What motivated Burgess (whose paramount mission right now should be to restore trust and integrity to municipal government) to bring Sanders on now  is more inscrutable. Burgess took the office promising to restore sanity and a steady hand to an office rocked by scandal and low morale. It’s hard to see how participating in a Stranger writer’s reporting experiment furthers that goal.

2. As Sanders was packing up his notebooks at the Stranger, his coworkers were gleefully celebrating the firing of another mayoral staffer, communications director Benton Strong.  (Previously,  Strong was a spokesman for the state Democrats and SEIU 775). In a post titled “Good Riddance, Benton Strong,” the Stranger‘s news staffers—Heidi Groover, Sydney Brownstone, Ana Sofia Knauf, and news editor Steven Hsieh—took turns trashing the “bad flack,” concluding with a call for readers to submit their own damaging stories about Murray’s former spokesman. As I said on Twitter, I’ve been frustrated and irritated by many different spokespeople for elected officials over the years, Strong included, but shitting all over a largely unknown staffer who just lost his job is unnecessary, tacky, and pointless.

3. Former city council member Nick Licata has been lobbying hard to fill Burgess’ now-empty seat on the council, sending a letter to council members “formally requesting that the City Council consider me as a candidate for filling the Council seat.”

“I believe that I can bring additional value to the Council’s budget process since I’ve been through it 18 times and have served as either the Chair or Vice Chair of the Budget Committee for a third of that time,” the letter continues. “As the former chair of the public safety, human services, and parks committees, as well as serving as Council President, I’m familiar with both the operations and capital budget’s contents and process. And, I understand from that experience how it affects city government services in a number of different areas.”

If appointed, Licata would be working alongside his former council aide, Lisa Herbold, who is now a council member and Burgess’ replacement as chair of the budget committee. Licata, once considered the furthest-left member of the council, now says his politics are more or less in line with most of the current council members’. “I think my agenda has always been pretty much a rational, cost-effective way to try to get social justice issues passed. That’s not new,” Licata says. “The majority of the council and I are on pretty much the same page on most issues.” Former interim council member John Okamoto’s name is also circulating as a potential “consensus” appointment, as is former council member Sally Clark’s. Neither is a shoo-in, though, particularly Okamoto, who won his appointment in 2015 (to Clark’s old position) by a vote of 5-3. Three of the people who voted for him two years ago are no longer on the council.

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3 thoughts on “Morning Crank: “I Just Don’t Think It’s a Big Deal.”

  1. Pingback: Wednesday news roundup

  2. The screenshots and texts also make clear Benton Strong was a total asshole, and regularly condescended to women reporters, questioning their credentials when he wasn’t berating them. But I guess that’s OK, and it’s wrong to criticize, since he was part of the establishment and we can’t ever speak up honestly or openly about the flaws of that establishment. Let’s just play nice and pretend nothing’s wrong…

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    • Dude. I’m a woman reporter who gets condescended to by dudes all the time and *I* thought shitting all over Benton was a dick move. (Having known him in various capacities over years, I would say he’s an equal-opportunity evader and someone who expresses his displeasure with reporters’ work to men and women in equal measure.) Don’t extrapolate a vast statement about “the establishment” from a comment about the tackiness of a bunch of reporters doing a happy dance because some little-known city staffer lost his job.

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