PubliQuestion and Answer: Richard Conlin

By Erica C. Barnett July 10, 2009

[caption id="attachment_9028" align="alignleft" width="238" caption="Richard Conlin"]Richard Conlin[/caption]

The sixth in a series of Q&As with the candidates for city council. (Previously on PubliQ&A: Position 6 candidate Martin Kaplan, Position 4 candidate Sally Bagshaw, Position 2 challenger David Ginsberg, and Position 8 candidates David Miller and Jordan Royer.

Three-term city council member Richard Conlin is one of those politicians people tend to either love or hate. Those who love him say he has a smart vision for the city that combines big-G Green environmentalism with a strong commitment to the neighborhoods and a pragmatic understanding of how things get done in politics.

Those who can't stand him say he's addicted to process, too fond of small solutions (like his much-mocked legislation legalizing the keeping of miniature goats), and too willing to compromise on issues important to progressives, such as urban density and transit (for example, he backed away from his support for the green surface/transit option to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct).

Conlin, who can appear uneasy in front of crowds, has lately seemed to come into his own, embracing his reputation as a goofy hippie (last month, he showed up at a candidate potluck bearing quiche, goat cheese, hard cider and honey that all came from a few blocks of his Madrona home) and speaking more forcefully than ever on the campaign trail. We sat down at the Bank of America Tower across the street from City Hall.

PubliCola: You've been on the council since 1997, which is a lifetime in terms of the issues you focus on. What have you learned that you would have liked to know then?

Richard Conlin: When i ran for council initially, I didn't realize how long it took to bring things to fruition. We started work on [the] Northgate [redevelopment] in 2003, and Thornton Place just opened. In 1998, we started a regional green building task force that was supposed to come up with a regional green building strategy, and we're still working on that. During my second race, in 2001, people said, "don't use the term 'sustainability' because no one will know what you're talking about." When we made our commitment to doing LEED Silver [certification] on all public buildings in 2000, that was a huge step forward.

PubliCola: But doesn't that get to one of the most common criticisms of your work on the council—that you're addicted to process and take forever to get things done?

Conlin: I think we're moving forward as rapidly as is reasonable. I don't think I'm slow. It's that I actually get things done. I discover the limits of the possible and then I push that limit. I kind of don't believe in beating my head against a stone wall out of principle. It's a matter of how do you actually get things done? You have to have goals that you're actually going to accomplish. ...

Until light rail came this close to opening, it was really hard to get people to understand that concept, that things were really going to change. When light rail opens, people are going to say, 'I can actually see it. I can actually touch it.' That's what it takes to make [future expansion of light rail] happen.

PubliCola: At a certain point, though, don't you have to just say, "I hear your concerns, but this has to happen, and it has to happen this way"?

Conlin: We do say this is what has to happen. But we also listen. Part of it is psychological. People want to be heard. They [worry that] things are going to have unintended consequences, and that's realistic. We are not infallible.

PubliCola: Critics also accuse you of reversing your position on various issues over the years—most recently, you called for a repeal of the "head tax," which you initially supported. [The tax is a $25-per-employee fee paid by employers; it exempts employees who don't drive to work alone]. Why did you decide to reverse your position, especially given that you've fought for things like sidewalks, which the tax helps pay for?

Conlin: From everything I've heard, I don't think [repealing the head tax] does take amenities away. We can fund all the projects that are planned for in our six-year [capital building plan] with the commercial parking tax [which is coming in higher than expected].

The real reason I'm in favor of repealing it is, we went out to the business community and asked what we could do to help them. This came out loud and clear as the business community's number-one priority. And it's not doing what we intended it to do. It's the third [business and occupation] tax in Seattle. And when we looked at the exemption for [commuters who bike, walk, or carpool to work], it just hasn't had the impact we wanted.

PubliCola: In a letter to supporters of the tax, you said that the reasons you now support repeal were largely "symbolic." Can you flesh that out?

Conlin: It is symbolic. It's perception. It's why, in the national economic indicators, you have things like the Consumer Confidence Index. We want businesses to believe it's going to be okay to expand and create jobs.

PubliCola: You've gotten a reputation, particularly with proposals like the goat-legalization bill, universal food-waste composting, and tree-protection rules, as someone who pushes for small-picture legislation. Is that true, and if so, has your focus narrowed since you came on the council?

Conlin: I think it's the opposite. My big two initiatives [zero waste and food security] are radically reshaping the way in which systems work. I presented the food security plan to the peak oil people and they gave me a standing ovation. I can't remember another time that has happened. It has an enormous impact on climate change. Taking a systems approach is actually more radical than taking a technical approach.

Conlin: I follow the model developed by the Cooperative Extension back in the '50s and '60s—first you reach opinion leaders, then at some point you reach a tipping point, then you bring in the mass of people. I think it's very important to have a model you work from. It makes a huge difference. So with the food security plan, we identified the early adopters who are working on local food in a major way. The goal is to reach a critical mass in the next couple of years until we have a tipping point. With zero waste, we're beginning to see the amount of waste go down faster than we expected. ... Look at universal food waste composting. I only got 10 or 15 emails and most of them were saying things like, "I haven't gotten my container," or "they aren't picking it up." Everybody's just doing it.

PubliCola: Assuming you're reelected this year [Conlin's only competitor, West Seattle resident David Ginsberg, is currently considered a distant long-shot], what are your main priorities in the next few months?

Conlin: We're doing some real changes around reorganizing the legislative department, changing the way we do community outreach. We're starting to recognize that issuing press releases isn't the way to do community outreach. Our relationship with the mayor works best when we to the mayor and say here's what we want to do. The [2008] parks levy [which Conlin supported, and Nickels didn't] was the first time ever that the city council has put a levy on the ballot that wasn't supported by the mayor. That [vote] was the real turning point on that.

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