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Sunday, December 5, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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WTO: A Turning Point -- Scrutiny Of Schell's Leadership Is Just Beginning As Council Schedules Meetings

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

As peace settles on the streets of Seattle, the crisis is far from over for Mayor Paul Schell.

In a single week, the pro-business mayor went from cheerleading the World Trade Organization visit to extending personal apologies to shoppers in the downtown core.

And the scrutiny of Schell's leadership is just beginning:

"I'm the elected official, so it is my responsibility," Schell said yesterday while trying to make amends with merchants and shoppers. "You can always learn, you can always do better."

The city's official self-examination will begin last week. Wednesday evening, the City Council will hold panel discussions with protesters, residents and business owners from besieged neighborhoods downtown and on Capitol Hill.

That will be followed by a public hearing to allow anyone who wants a chance to vent about the week's events.

The council also plans to appoint three members to a special task force that will review the city's handling of the protests and recommend ways to avoid in the future mistakes made this week.

And council members are threatening to wrest more control from the mayor, perhaps diluting the strength of a traditionally powerful office.

"It is time for the council to start asserting its authority," said Councilman Nick Licata. "We have been far too passive allowing the executive to take control. We are to blame for allowing him to make bad decisions."

As the week drew to a close, Schell said he didn't have time

for interviews.

But his handling of the WTO meeting has enraged his strongest allies, the powerful downtown business community; alienated police and firefighter unions already critical of Schell's leadership; and turned a rocky relationship with the City Council into a downright hostile one.

And the anger among residents on Capitol Hill following Wednesday's clashes between protesters and police is almost palpable.

"There is a real question in people's minds about the kind of leadership we got out of this," said King County Councilman Greg Nickels, who lost a primary campaign against Schell in 1997. "That is something he is going to have to answer for in the next few weeks."

Backers say Schell may prosper

Supporters say Schell will survive and perhaps even prosper as emotions cool. The mayor's office already is making much of that fact that the mayhem could have been worse and the injuries more severe; there were no serious injuries reported last week, despite intense scuffles and almost 600 arrests.

"I would be extraordinarily surprised if he doesn't emerge as strong or stronger than before," said Democratic political consultant Blair Butterworth, who advised Schell in his 1997 mayoral campaign. "My sense is he made the right decisions, and he was accessible and he took the heat."

But Capitol Hill leaders and other critics, growing in number, are talking openly of a recall election or at least making WTO a campaign issue in two years.

Conversations with individual council members indicate a review panel will be tough on the mayor.

"Part of his future political legacy will be his failure to properly assess the potential damage the WTO could do to Seattle," said Licata, who worked closely with many of the protest groups.

Licata was instrumental in quashing Seattle's bid for the Olympics. Now, he faults himself and the council as much as Schell for not asking the tough questions that might have prevented trouble during the WTO.

Schell's shaky standing with council members was made worse by an incident in which Councilman Richard McIver, the lone African-American member, was pulled from his car and interrogated by police Wednesday night on his way to a WTO-related event.

Police have launched an internal investigation of the incident, which introduced a volatile racial component to the debate just when Schell was hoping to defuse such tensions.

It also punctuated the touchy feelings of many City Council members, who contend the mayor's office has treated them with less than proper respect during his two years in office.

Earlier on Wednesday, the council complained bitterly that it had not received the official WTO credentials that would allow members to cross police lines. Deputy Mayor Maud Daudon said the mayor's staff tried repeatedly to get the credentials, but was having trouble with WTO officials. She also assured council members they would have no trouble getting into restricted areas.

Council not biggest concern

But battles with the council aren't the most pressing concern for Schell, said Clifford Traisman, the head of intergovernmental relations and one of the mayor's top political advisers.

Schell, he said, is more concerned with healing Seattle's bruised self-confidence than his own future.

"There are a lot of people who want their mayor to look them in the eye and explain to them what happened," Traisman said. "Obviously, he needs to be out and talking to people and he can't wait (to do that)."

Downtown retailers lost more than $12 million in Christmas sales last week, after being assured the WTO would be a money-maker. And trust was shattered among Capitol Hill residents whose neighborhood was visited by the most criticized police action of the week.

On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, police squared off against protesters in the city's most densely populated neighborhood. Officers fired volleys of tear gas, bean bags and nonlethal flash-bang grenades near homes and apartments to break up groups of demonstrators.

Police insist the action was necessary to maintain public safety. But many on Capitol Hill said the tactics - approved by Schell and Stamper - created and then escalated stand-offs in an area outside the established curfew zone.

"Pushing a crowd, whether they were thugs or protesters, into a residential neighborhood was not a good end-strategy," said state Rep. Ed Murray, a Democrat who represents Capitol Hill, and a long-time Schell supporter. "It almost turned into residents being trashed, and that needs to be looked at."

Was Schell making decisions?

Assessments ahead will determine whether Schell was making the key decisions himself, or accepting bad advice. Hard questions will be asked about the standing of other top city officials, especially Police Chief Norm Stamper.

But Traisman said it's unlikely Schell will look for a scapegoat.

"If you look at this mayor's record, he is not a mayor who blames other people when things don't go as planned," he said. "Loyalty is his middle name."

But the loyalty of Schell's supporters is what is most at risk.

Despite his backing of business and development interests, Schell has enjoyed strong support from labor. But a massive peaceful labor rally Tuesday was all but ignored as more radical protest groups took control of the downtown core. And the week damaged Schell's relations with the city's most influential unions, the Police Officers' Guild and Fire Fighters Local 27.

Firefighters are angry over a request from police on Tuesday that they stand by to turn their hoses on demonstrators. The idea was rejected after the union and Fire Chief James Sewell strongly objected.

Police officers are furious over what many consider the poor planning by Schell, Stamper and other top brass. Rank-and-file officers have complained that they were ill-equipped, worked without rest and that their advance warning about WTO security was disregarded.

"There will definitely be fallout from this," said police Guild president Mike Edwards.

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WTO PANEL

On Wednesday, beginning at 4 p.m., the Seattle City Council will hold two panel discussions on the effects of the World Trade Organization meeting on downtown and Capitol Hill residents, businesses and protesters.

At 5:30 p.m., there will be a public hearing on the same subject.

The council has not yet settled on a location, but the meeting will likely be held in either the council chambers on the 11th floor of the Municipal Building or in the downtown library's main auditorium. For information on location and any requirements for signing up to speak at the hearing, call the council office at 684-8888.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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