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Wednesday, August 27, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

The ethically alarmed do a number on Nicastro

The re-election of Judy Nicastro depends on a dispute over eight parking spaces at a strip club. Imagine that.

Heidi Wills is likewise compromised, but the mess at City Light distracts attention. Jim Compton gets off, somehow. But Nicastro sweats, telling everyone that the matter is small potatoes.

Which it is.

The club, called Rick's, is on Lake City Way. Behind it is a parking lot, and behind that a high fence that shields the parking lot from houses. The fence has two extra right angles to accommodate a strip of property like the tab on a file folder. This tab, about the size of a parking strip, has some concrete blocks to prevent people from parking on it.

Unlike the rest of the property, this tab is in a single-family zone. But you could not build a house on it. Legally, it is not big enough. Practically, it is not big enough. You couldn't get a skinny house on it. Not even a garage.

The owners of Rick's wanted to park cars on it. That is about the only way they can achieve any economic value from this asset, for which they paid. To deny all value is taking, and when government takes all economic value from a property through regulation, it has to buy the property. And Seattle is not offering to do that.

The ethically alarmed care about none of this. The issue, they say, is that the friends of Rick's sent Nicastro, Wills and Compton thousands of dollars of campaign money.

Did that break the law? No. Several council members broke rules of quasi-judicial procedure, but that is a side issue.

The outrage, according to the ethically alarmed, is the "appearance of impropriety," which is to say, things that look bad. The timing and the amounts of the checks do look bad, but so do a lot of political contributions. The emotional amplifier here is that the owner of Rick's is of the Colacurcio family, which has long specialized in dancing establishments in which naked women shamelessly exploit men.

Well, so what? The Colacurcios have a legal business, and they have the same rights as anyone else regarding places to park.

What is involved here is a request for a favor. Given that the request was legal and the contributions were also, the question ought to be: What is the favor?

Is it a rip-off of the public?

Actually, no. It is a request by a company to park eight cars on its own property.

What is outrageous here is not that the Colacurcios tried to influence the council. It is that a matter as trivial as a zoning waiver for this dinky piece of land becomes the biggest election issue in a city of 550,000 people.

Hey, folks, if we're going to get exercised about business interests paying for political results in our town, let's take a look at the big stuff, like the levy to build a $1.75 billion monorail, which was won by 800 votes. Consider some of the donations by companies that hoped to get a piece of the pie: $10,000 each from UBS Paine Webber and Goldman Sachs (bond underwriters), $25,000 by Bombardier and its construction associate, $30,000 by Hitachi's construction associate, and $26,000 by Paul Allen interests, which stand to benefit by a station at the Seahawks Stadium.

Consider also the $86 million Seattle Housing Levy. Eleven donors contributed $10,000 or more to that campaign, which was unopposed. Ten of those donors were either developers or lenders who make a living off the program. (The 11th was Bill Gates.)

If it's really strip clubs that get you hot, consider the story by Erica Barnett and Josh Feit in The Stranger. Since 1988 the City Council has passed an annual moratorium on strip clubs in the name of "public safety" and "public morals." Rick's, Déjà Vu Showgirls, Centerfolds and The Sands may therefore remain in the undulation business in Seattle, but no one else may apply. How have club owners responded to this heavy-handed government regulation of their trade? By contributing money each year to members of the Seattle City Council, which unanimously re-enacts what might be called the Strip Club Oligopoly Act.

And they say Nicastro stepped over the line.

What line?

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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