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Friday, December 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nickels' ousting of Diers divisive

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The holiday party was buzzing. It was one of those insider affairs, with Seattle politicos, bureaucrats and neighborhood activists all jammed into a Pioneer Square pub drinking beer and talking politics. Exactly the sort of crowd mayor-elect Greg Nickels might like to schmooze.

But Nickels was about as welcome as the Grinch in Whoville.

After all, the mayor-elect had sacked the party's guest of honor: Jim Diers, the popular head of the city's Department of Neighborhoods. Diers was one of four department heads shown the door by Nickels, who will take office next month.

The outpouring of anger over Diers' termination has been extraordinary for a city bureaucrat. But this is no ordinary paper-pusher.

As head of the neighborhoods department since its creation in 1988, Diers has cultivated that rarest of reputations as a bureaucrat revered and respected by politicians and activists alike. Nickels' decision to replace Diers has infuriated many people and sparked the first controversy of his yet-to-begin administration.

"Jim Diers has the biggest constituency in this city — probably bigger than any council member," said City Councilwoman Jan Drago, with a touch of envy.

That probably is why he had to go.

Nickels promised during the campaign to put his imprint on City Hall from the start. While Diers says he would have been a loyal subject, there is little doubt he could have proved an immovable object for the new administration if he had disagreed with its focus.

"If I were a new mayor, I'd be intimidated," said Andrea Tousignant, vice president of Friends of P-Patch, a group promoting the public gardens, one of the many neighborhood amenities Diers has championed.

"Jim's a renegade," she said. "He's really good at what he does, and people follow him because he's a leader."

Indeed, Diers followed a renegade's path to city government. He was hired by Mayor Charles Royer to head the fledgling neighborhoods department in 1988.

Diers recalls being quite shocked at landing the job. He said his previous visit to Royer's office had involved delivering a live chicken, dubbed "Chicken Charley," in a protest over low-income housing.

As a member of SESCO, the South End Seattle Community Organization, Diers, for years, was a thorn in the side of many city officials.

Aside from the chicken stunt, the group delivered a dead rat to the City Council and a boulder to an unresponsive city bureaucrat.

Its colorful tactics and doggedness got results. The group saved Kubota Gardens from becoming a condominium development, fought red-lining of poor communities by banks and persuaded Group Health Cooperative to open a Rainier Valley clinic.

Diers, who later went on to work for Group Health, took that activist spirit to city government. He encouraged neighborhoods — especially poor ones — to organize and demand their fair share from the city.

His activist slant on government, influenced by community organizing guru Saul Alinsky, differs from "customer service-oriented" reform efforts, which seek to make public agencies act more like businesses.

"Government isn't a business, it's part of a democracy. The more you treat people as customers, the more they just think of themselves as taxpayers," Diers says.

Under his leadership, Diers' department created programs that let neighborhoods, not government, decide what was important. The city's neighborhood matching-grants program, for example, matches city dollars with volunteer hours and contributions to create new parks, garden or art projects, like the Fremont Troll. The program has been copied by more than 40 cities.

Though he rarely loses his big, toothy grin, Diers was clearly dejected at losing the best job he has ever had. He noted the irony of being fired the same year he was named public employee of the year by the Municipal League of King County.

"I always thought if I do a really professional job and I work really hard and if the community likes me, I'll be OK," Diers said. "I guess Greg thinks in a different way."

For his part, Nickels' only explanation for replacing Diers was that change is good for city government. He told Diers only that he wanted to move the department in a "new direction," but has not said what that means.

Nickels declined, through a spokeswoman, to be interviewed on the subject.

Marianne Bichsel, Nickels' spokeswoman, noted that Diers has been the department's only director. "A new perspective would be beneficial," she said.

Nickels didn't apply the same logic when he retained Seattle Center Director Virginia Anderson, who also has held that position since 1988.

Tousignant, a student in the Masters of Public Administration Program at the University of Washington, said while Nickels' decision pains her, it jibes with what she has learned in school: A new administration typically cements its power by replacing popular division chiefs.

Despite the howls of protest, there is no requirement for Nickels to give any reason for his decision.

"Unfortunately, it comes with the territory. As a department director, you serve at the pleasure of an elected official," said James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, who sits on Nickels' transition team. "He (Nickels) shouldn't have to explain."

However, there could be political consequences if Nickels doesn't address the concerns of neighborhood critics. The people most angry with the Diers decision are among the most dedicated observers of local government. If Nickels alienates them early in his administration, he could set himself up for trouble over the next four years.

That much is clear in the tenor of hundreds of letters to the city on the subject. Some come from people who say they'd have reconsidered their vote for Nickels had they known he'd fire their favorite person in city government.

"Right now, the neighborhood people who voted for Greg Nickels are feeling burned," wrote one. Another opined: "You have already fouled up big time."

Nickels didn't ease tensions when he sent a sloppy letter to Department of Neighborhoods employees explaining his decision. The letter had jagged margins and misspelled "grateful" (he spelled it "greatful").

No replacement has been named for Diers, who earned $96,000 supervising a department of 90 employees. Brent Crook, the department's assistant director, has been appointed acting director.

City Councilmen Nick Licata and Richard Conlin have asked Nickels to appoint a search committee with neighborhood representation to find a replacement. Nickels has not said whether he will take their advice. He offered the job to longtime International District activist Bob Santos, who turned it down.

"I couldn't put in the 60 hours a week that Jim did. He was everywhere," said Santos, who is semi-retired.

For his part, Diers knows he'll quickly land on his feet. He has been offered jobs in other cities but hopes to stay in Seattle. Regardless, he'll be watching to see how Nickels handles the department.

"I think it is important for him to understand not to take the neighborhoods for granted," Diers said.

Jim Brunner can be reached at 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com.

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