Mike O'Brien Talks About his Panhandling Flip-Flop
City Council member Mike O'Brien just talked with PubliCola about his vote against the aggressive panhandling ordinance that passed yesterday by a 5-4 vote. The ordinance, sponsored by Tim Burgess, would have needed six votes to override a promised veto by Mayor Mike McGinn. (This morning, McGinn told PubliCola he would be making an announcement about his veto message "relatively soon.") O'Brien switched positions repeatedly on the proposal, first opposing it, then supporting it, and finally voting against it.
Asked about the widespread perception that he'd caved under pressure from his longtime friend, coworker, and campaign ally McGinn, O'Brien said, "Of course I've been worried about that perception, ever since we both declared as candidates" last year. "This event, and the way I strategically or unstrategically played my role out in it, will make that perception and reality that we're close harder to deal with, and I get that."
As I noted yesterday , the vote also has the potential to hurt O'Brien's relationship with his fellow council members, who may see him as an ally for McGinn, not the council. O'Brien acknowledged that concern but said his conversations with council members after the vote had been positive so far.
Moreover, O'Brien insists that it was conversations with his own close friends, advisors, and supporters—"Mike O'Brien people, not mayor people"—that ultimately changed his mind. "I actually was kind of put off a little bit by the mayor’s pressure on me," O'Brien said. "I like the mayor and he's a friend, but trying to get into my brain and figure out what was influential or not—I’m not sure who’s capable of that."
O'Brien said that what ultimately convinced him to change his vote was meeting over a long, sleepless weekend with staff, advisors, and "advocates from the community" who "really pulled me out of the technical weeds" of the bill. O'Brien said he realized that even though there was "nothing technical in this bill that would target people of color or poor people or people with mental illness," it would likely be used against those groups. "Our criminal justice system, while not intentionally unfair, discriminates against certain classes of people in our society. ... I realized that this is the type of bill where, even though the intent isn’t to do anything like that, it would have that effect."
O'Brien said he made a "rookie mistake" by saying publicly, in an interview with PubliCola Friday, that he planned to vote for Burgess' proposal late last week. "When I said I made my decision, I clearly hadn’t made up my mind. I was hoping that by making a statement, that would settle it, and be done with it. It was rookie lesson: If you haven'’t made up your mind, don’t say you’ve made up your mind."
O'Brien predicts an even tougher battle to implement the rest of Burgess' proposal—adding foot patrols, more neighborhood police officers, additional efforts to connect people with social services, and giving higher priority to housing and support services for the chronically homeless. All those things, unlike the aggressive-panhandling law, will take money to implement, as well as support from McGinn. "I expect that Burgess and I will both put pressure on the mayor to lead" on getting money for those proposals, O'Brien said. "We need the executive side to really support this and work with the council and start finding solutions."