This article was originally posted on Friday afternoon.
O'Brien, speaking at a rally held by supporters of light rail on 520 earlier this year.
City Council Member Mike O'Brien, a longtime friend and ally of Mayor Mike McGinn—the pair worked at Stokes Lawrence and then the Sierra Club together, campaigned against the 2007 roads and transit measure together, and shared a campaign consultant in the '09 election—has struck out on his own this week, expressing opposition to the mayor's positions on two major issues: Tim Burgess' proposal to expand the law against aggressive panhandling (McGinn's against it) and the need for more study on light rail on 520 (McGinn's for it).
This afternoon, PubliCola broke the news that O'Brien will join five other council members—a veto-proof majority—in voting in favor of the aggressive-panhandling law this coming Monday. The law will ban panhandling at ATMs or parking pay stations; blocking a person’s path; using threatening or aggressive gestures; and repeatedly panhandling someone who has already refused to give money. O'Brien's vote represents a reversal of sorts; on the campaign trail last year, he said he opposed the idea of banning certain types of panhandling in principle, although Burgess had not yet proposed a specific ordinance. McGinn, who was initially neutral on the bill, threatened this morning to veto the proposal.
Also this week, O'Brien signed off on a letter from the city council to the state transportation department and the governor expressing support for "high-capacity transit" on the new 520 bridge (McGinn's position), but arguing that adding transit should not delay bridge construction. McGinn wants the state to delay the project six months to a year to study adding light rail to the bridge. In signing the council's letter, O'Brien appears to be backing off from his previous belief that the state should study rail immediately, rather than trying to add it later, a position he outlined at a PubliCola forum less than a month ago.
O'Brien may be trying to ally himself with the newly resurgent council, which has clashed with McGinn repeatedly since he took office in January. Politically, that may be a smart move: So far, McGinn has not prevailed on any major issue he has championed, from rail on 520 to the panhandling ban to an August seawall vote to the deep-bore tunnel on the waterfront.
This afternoon, I talked to O'Brien about his divergence from his longtime ally and, specifically, about his apparent change of heart about the panhandling ordinance and transit on 520.
I asked O'Brien why he decided to support Burgess' proposal after opposing it pretty unequivocally last year. He said, "The thing that eventually decided it for me is that I think this is a legitimate issue in Seattle that I think we need to act to address, and the five-point plan council member Burgess laid out"—which includes adding police foot patrols, expanding housing and human services, and implementing the neighborhood policing plan—"and is the most thoughtful way of addressing it."
He added, "Obviously, I’ve heard a ton of concern from citizens about whether this is the right thing to do, or if it would even work. At the same time, it’s been amended a couple of times and we added some safeguards to make sure it doesn't get abused."
Did his former mentor, Mayor McGinn, lobby him on the legislation? O'Brien said he met with McGinn earlier this week and they discussed Burgess' proposal. "He tried to win me over" by arguing that the bill criminalizes homelessness, he said, but adds that he wasn't convinced. "Does it allow the police to potentially abuse the law and turn homelessness into a crime? Perhaps, but I think the laws already on the books do that too. I don’t see signs that that's happening now, so that’s not a big concern for me."
Asked about his decision to sign off on the council's 520 letter—perceived as a political affront to McGinn—instead of sticking with McGinn's rail-or-nothing position, O'Brien said that although he had "some serious concerns with the letter," ultimately, he decided the letter included enough "language that supports the direction the mayor is hoping to go" to support it. "One of the problems with the letter, like any letter drafted by nine people, is that the language in there is wishy-washy enough that it’s hard to tell exactly what conclusion to take away."
O'Brien says the language in McGinn's (much briefer) letter to the state, which urged them to hold off on 520 construction for the six months to a year he thinks it will take to study rail, is "great. I think all of us have a very similar vision" for 520. But, he adds, "The main issue is, are you going to stand up and tell the state to start from scratch or are you going to ask the state to make [rail] work within their framework? ... I’m not convinced that there’s going to be a lot of back and forth. I think the state’s going to come out and say, 'here’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to start building right away."
However, O'Brien holds out hope that the state will make some of the other changes the council's letter suggested—like putting a traffic-management plan in place in Montlake—the state will be "forced back to the table" to come up with a better, more transit-friendly design for the bridge.
What does he think of McGinn's 520 strategy, which seems to consist of trotting out "the will of the people"—AKA public-opinion polls—and decrying the "pundits and power brokers" who oppose his plans? "I don't know what his strategy is," O'Brien said noncommitally. "I'm sure he has one."
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