Embattled Des Moines mayor abruptly quits

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Campaign inquiry was a ‘distraction,’ Wasson says

DES MOINES — Mayor Don Wasson, under siege in this suburban city over an investigation into campaign-finance irregularities, resigned last night.

Wasson’s surprise resignation as mayor took effect after last night’s City Council meeting. He intends to remain on the council, which selects the mayor from its members. Wasson’s term on the council expires this year.

He cited a state Public Disclosure Commission‘s investigation into campaign finance as the reason for giving up his post.

“I am making this decision now because I want the City Council to be able to go on with its business without the distraction caused by the recent PDC charges,” he said in a statement.

He said in a brief interview that “it’s become more and more obvious that this (resigning) is the best thing to do.” Wasson will not stand for re-election on the council.

“I don’t like the way it’s ending up,” he said.

Councilman Richard Benjamin, who is also mayor pro tem, read a statement in which he also referred to the PDC investigation. He termed it a “persecution” and criticized news coverage of the investigation.

Last week, staff members at the Public Disclosure Commission asserted that Wasson worked with a local businessman to conceal $49,000 in campaign contributions and get three new council members elected in 2001 who would, in turn, elect him mayor.

The Des Moines City Council has seven members.

Councilman Bob Sheckler, a frequent opponent of Wasson’s and the other three members who form a council majority, said he doubted much will change when a new mayor is elected Thursday. Wasson and his allies will still have a majority and can pick the mayor, he said.

The PDC report said that the money came from local businessman Hank Hopkins, which angered citizen groups who have fought for years against the Port of Seattle’s plan to build a third runway at Sea-Tac Airport. The runway is at the eastern edge of Des Moines.

Hopkins’ company, Environmental Materials Transport, has proposed building a conveyor belt from Des Moines to the site of the runway. The belt would be used for a variety of projects, but primarily to transfer fill to build the runway.

Hopkins proposed the conveyor belt to Des Moines in 1997. Residents and city officials fiercely opposed it.

But in February, the City Council, which had just elected Wasson as its new mayor, invited Hopkins to resubmit his plans for the conveyor belt.

Then in March, Wasson had a private meeting with Port of Seattle officials during which, he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he discussed the third runway but did not make any agreements.

Participants in the meeting said Wasson discussed settling environmental issues standing in the way of building the conveyor belt

Last month, the city withdrew its membership in a coalition of towns opposing the construction of a third runway at Sea-Tac. The vote was 4-3, and runaway opponents accused the mayor of engineering the council makeup to be able to get that vote.

Although new council members Benjamin, Gary Petersen and Maggie Steenrod campaigned largely on the funds supplied by Wasson, the PDC staff did not accuse them of wrongdoing.

Wasson has also been known to be a bear on the bench at council meetings, growling at residents and rudely interrupting their comments.

Last summer, he tried to change the meeting rules by not allowing citizens to speak until after the meetings, which often end around 11 p.m. or later. The measure was rejected.