In City Hall politics, nothing is as much fun as watching and speculating on the annual game of musical chairs: City Council committee assignments.

In January, Jan Drago will take over as City Council President from Peter Steinbrueck, hoping to usher in an era of less friction with Mayor Greg Nickels and the downtown Chamber of Commerce. Having served as City Council President during her first term back in 1996, you’d think it would be time for someone else to take that role–maybe Richard Conlin or Richard McIver–but you’d be wrong. No one can crack the whip like Jan. Or wants to.

Other assignments are just as interesting. Peter Steinbrueck picked up the chair of the Land Use and Planning committee, which will be deeply involved in two of the mayor’s pet projects this coming year: the South Lake Union development and the Northgate Mall development. A recent agreement on South Lake Union approved by the City Council gave Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures everything it asked for and largely ignored the concerns of neighborhood groups and low income housing advocates.

Likewise, last week’s City Council decisions on the Northgate Mall development made major concessions to Lorig Associates and Simon Properties Group, while tossing bread crumbs to the neighborhood groups and local environmentalists who want to see, among other things, a more pedestrian-friendly environment to replace the endless sea of concrete at Northgate, and the eventual daylighting of Thornton Creek, which currently runs through a drain pipe beneath the south mall parking lot. We’ll see whether the City, including Steinbrueck’s Land Use and Planning committee, will act on the vague promises made in these agreements, and actually listen to the advice of neighborhood groups in the overall design of the Northgate development. Of course, it could be worse: Jim Compton might have won this committee assignment.

Instead, Compton was shuffled over to the committee that oversees Seattle Public Utilities, which makes me wonder what Margaret Pageler was doing over there for the past year that now so obviously requires Compton’s vigilance. Anyone check the quality of our drinking water lately? What about the logging ban in the Cedar River Watershed? Perhaps this is the burnout committee–the place worn-out, embattled councilmembers go to take a rest before they decide to either opt for a real committee assignment or retire for good.

Richard Conlin, the main architect of the Northgate Development plan, is sliding into the chairmanship of the Transportation committee. In addition to shepherding through major transportation changes around Northgate while the developers try to run amok, Conlin will be dealing with Mayor Nickels’ wacky sidewalk development program, the proposed streetcar for South Lake Union, and major improvements to the Mercer Street corridor. And there’s the interface with Sound Transit in all its dismal aspects, plus planning for the new Monorail–all of which points to this as being one of the busiest committees in 2004.

Until you look at Licata’s assignment. Happily, he managed to capture the chairmanship of the Public Safety committee. How that happened is anyone’s guess. Perhaps now that union negotiations with the Police Guild are well underway, the rest of the council and the mayor are assuming that Nick won’t be able to do much damage. Maybe they think he’ll be so swamped holding public hearings on police misconduct complaints that he’ll have little time for anything else. Probably they’re throwing the whole police accountability issue in his lap to distract his attention from Mayor Nickels’ major development schemes.

If so, then they made a major mistake in assigning David Della the Parks and Neighborhoods committee. Della, who ran his campaign on a detailed platform of how to reform City Light, is certainly ready to turn his critical focus on something, having been denied the committee that actually oversees City Light. Becoming the go-to guy for unhappy neighborhood activists seems tailor made for him. Nick Licata’s past experience in the post makes Licata a natural mentor for Della and is guaranteed to keep him involved.

The other council committee assignments are much less exciting. Richard McIvar won the Finance and Budget committee, while newcomer Tom Rassmussen has the Housing, Human Services, and Health committee. Rassmussen’s experience as an advocate for senior citizens makes him a natural for human services and health, but it’ll be interesting to see how he interacts with low income housing activists. Will he show himself to be a downtown, pro-business, Nickels puppet? Will he opt for Richard Conlin’s teflon-coated “win-win-win” mantra? Or will he turn out to have a heart and conscience after all? We’ll see.

Last, and most certainly least, is the horrible news of Jean Godden’s appointment to head the Energy and Environmental Committee, which oversees City Light. Given that she had to go somewhere, we could only hope that they would dump her someplace innocuous, like the Public Utilities committee. Instead, the Energy committee is one of the most contentious, difficult assignments possible.

City Light has been under fire for running up a $1.7 billion debt during the recent California energy crisis, then passing it on to ratepayers in the form of four steep rate increases in 2001. Then Mayor Nickels, after unsuccessfully attempting to defend former Superintendent Gary Zarker, came along and nominated Jorge Carrasco to be the new head of City Light. Carrasco has no experience whatsoever with electrical utilities, the electrical market, or running an agency deeply in debt. Granted, Carrasco has great qualifications as an uncompromising environmentalist, but that was when he ran a public water utility. He and Godden, together, should be dumped into Seattle Public Utilities, not the ailing City Light. The combination of Godden and Carrasco–if he’s confirmed by the City Council–will be like the blind leading the blind. Or the moron leading the clueless.

Next year will be interesting and entertaining, if not exactly fun. Get out your bullhorns.