Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has promised an open government, but his dealings with a potential arena investor show something else.

Share story

It’s time for Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn to admit that he just can’t dance.

He’s been working on one heck of a political pirouette over the past several months: holding private talks with someone interested in putting a pro basketball and hockey arena south of downtown, while promising to stay true to his pledge of running an open government.

But McGinn’s fancy footwork was tripped up in December, when The Seattle Times’ Steve Miletich found out about the proposal and wrote about it.

Only then — with the story about to come out in The Times — did McGinn tell then-City Council President Richard Conlin, incoming President Sally Clark and Councilmember Tim Burgess about the things he was up to.

Among them: hiring a tax expert and sports-facility consultant the previous July.

McGinn didn’t file the consultants’ contracts with the City Clerk’s Office (essentially making them public) because, although city law says they must be filed, it doesn’t say how quickly.

Nice little loophole.

So McGinn was six months into the arena talks, and the City Council didn’t know a thing.

“It still puckers me a bit when we have to learn everything from the newspaper,” said City Councilwoman Jean Godden.

“I heard about it through gossip,” Clark told me the other day. “I kinda scoffed. People would have heard about it.”

Not if McGinn was staying mum with everyone but his top aides.

I understand that a deal like this is a delicate dance, that securing real estate and gathering investors require the discretion of a Secret Service agent in the Kennedy White House.

Breathe a word to the wrong person, and the whole thing could cave like a souffle. But at some point, you have to do a gut check. You have to remember that you ran as a reformer who promised to be the eyes and ears of your constituents. People expected McGinn to be open and honest.

Instead, seven months later, I get a statement from his spokesman that says, in part, “Any deal that is reached would be subjected to a robust public review.”

This arena deal might prove to be a watershed moment in McGinn’s tenure.

Consider this passage from a Seattle Times story about his 2011 State of the City speech: “The mayor also called on city leaders to adopt the ‘new politics’ of openness and transparency and reject the ‘old politics’ of backroom deals that serve the elite.”

During a Jan. 25 “Ask the Mayor” segment on the The Seattle Channel, McGinn recalled what he’s heard from the public during the 30-something Town Hall meetings he attended last year: “We want our government to be transparent, we want to know how you make decisions. We want to know why you make decisions. We want to have the opportunity to engage government.”

Four days later, McGinn stood at a City Hall open house and said this:

“The most important interest isn’t the special interest, but the public interest,” he said. “I’m committed to leading an open and effective government that is responsive to your concerns. … My office is open to you. That’s symbolic. But it is also real.

“The power brokers work hard to get into my office,” he said, “but I want to make sure I am always listening to you.”

It’s not like he had a body buried somewhere. But couldn’t he have confided in one trusted council member sometime over the summer? There are, after all, good things to share.

In emails to McGinn’s office, Christopher Hansen, the hedge-fund manager seeking to build the arena, stressed his desire to proceed “without a large public outlay.”

Based on McGinn’s squawking over what the Highway 99 deep-bore tunnel might cost us, I would think he’d have called a news conference to tell us about The Arena We Could Get For Cheap.

But no. Turns out the mayor who said he loves his town halls — “because, let me tell you, the public keeps me honest, man” — is not above secrecy. In this big-city deal, he’s exactly what he swore he wasn’t.

We don’t need a new arena to watch professional players. The game’s already on at City Hall.

Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or

A saving grace: He likes Wilco.