City council president (and city council candidate) Tim Burgess came in to Seattle Met yesterday for his PubliCola endorsement interview. Burgess, running for his third term, is facing off against left wing challenger Jon Grant, for the Position Eight at-large spot.
Thanks to Burgess's push for tough panhandling legislation two terms ago—and his more recent votes: against employer and commercial parking taxes, against putting a public financing measure on the 2014 ballot, for former port executive John Okamoto (as Sally Clark's replacement), and against considering homeless encampments in single family zones—Burgess is considered the leader of the conservative bloc on the council.
Conservative is relative (and this is Seattle), and Burgess has certainly ushered through impressive progressive accomplishments. Most recently he passed a gun ammo tax, but more significantly, he led the campaign for the preschool funding measure and he brokered a winning deal on Seattle's landmark paid sick leave law. He also voted for Mike O'Brien's original linkage fee proposal, a blanket tax on developers to fund affordable housing; that legislation has been abandoned for mayor Ed Murray's "grand bargain"—an upzone in exchange for mandatory inclusionary affordable housing—but the blanket developer charge that Burgess supported has become something of a rallying cry for the dissident left now, including Grant.
However, and maybe it's because he looks like a teen fantasy fiction villain (endorsing Grant, the Stranger hilariously called Burgess Seattle's Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones), it's just hard to shake the feeling that Burgess is a closet conservative and that his recent string of progressive votes—he voted to support the teachers union strike (even though he's a longtime "education reformer") and he supports this year's public financing measure—are strictly election year poses.
And so, we kicked off our Q&A with this question: You've come out for I-122, this year's public financing measure, but we don't believe you. We just don't. Tim Burgess is the one who got in the way of Mike O'Brien's public financing. So, a PubliCola LIKE or DISLIKE—tell us exactly why you like I-122.
First of all, LIKE. [There are] several key facts. In the early 1990s, I helped administer Seattle's public finance program as chair of the ethics and elections board. I helped write those checks and administer that program and then the state legislature took that away from us. Poof! Public financing went away in Seattle. In 2012 and 2013, I worked on the council with Sally Clark, and we advanced a public financing measure. I voted to put it on the ballot, and it failed. In November 2013, Seattle voters said no. Now, it was very close, but it was rejected. So, now we come to 2014 and O'Brien comes to me, and I says, 'hey, I want to put up another public finance measure on the November ballot in 2014, and I informally polled my colleagues and the majority said, 'whoa, it just was defeated and that would be the fifth tax measure in 2014—[alongside] transit [Metro funding], preschool...and we said, 'you know what, this is not the right time. So, let's bring it back, and let's bring it back in 2015 not 14. And so that's what we did. So, I got hit because I blocked it as president, but I was acting on behalf of the majority.
Burgess went on to say he's met with I-122 author, Sightline's Alan Durning, and while Burgess thinks the $100 voter voucher measure is a little "confusing and complicated," he says "I've always been for public financing" and that he supports the measure, but reserves the right to amend it after two years if the voters do approve it.
Shattering his conservative image some more, Burgess also told us he's willing to take up the housing affordability committee's (HALA) recommendation to undo new restrictions on pod apartments.
Burgess said that in the context of the HALA deliberations "I think we're going to revisit those [pod apartment regulations]. I have told several people that I'm willing to look at that again in light of what's happened in the marketplace [a 97 percent drop]. We should look at that again. I'm happy to reexamine that." (Burgess was part of the 9-0 vote to restrict pod apartments late last year. Mike O'Brien, who ushered through the new pod apartment rules, told us he's not interested in revisiting the issue. And I should note that the council has published a list of the HALA recommendations they're taking up and pod apartments is not on the list.)
Burgess also indicated that he supported the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21's push to include a private right of action in wage disputes which Mayor Murray has so far left out of pending wage enforcement legislation.
On the UFCW grievance: "I think we will almost certainly have some form of right of action. And it will either come in the mayor's legislation or the council will consider adding that. I told the business community, I want to be consistent in Seattle with federal and state law, and both federal and state law have that right. What the scope is remains to be seen. But at the end of the day, it will be there in some form."
However, Burgess demurred when it came to two other progressive ideas: O'Brien's proposal to allow ride share contract employees like Uber drivers to unionize and his opponent Grant's proposal for citywide maternity leave for workers.
On O'Brien's challenge to the so-called "gig economy," Burgess said simply, "I'm generally supportive. We have an executive session with our lawyers on Monday." As for his rival's proposal, Burgess said: "I’m not sure yet. Earlier the city council passed paid parental leave for city employees stating at the same time our aspiration to get to everyone."
And what about his resistance to the council's progressive bloc call for an employee head tax and a commercial parking tax as part of the $930 million property tax transportation levy?
"I believe the mayor made a very compelling argument to conserve any potential revenue sources for the future. But I’ve also said, if we’re going to reimpose the head tax, let’s not do it like we’ve done before. Let’s tie it to congestion. I might very well be for a smarter head tax than what we had before."
Of course, the optics that cast Burgess as Lord Voldemort on the council are tied to his clashes with populist hero Kshama Sawant.
On that point, he seemed to want it both ways. When we asked him—after we ran him through our list of LIKE and DISLIKE questions (he LIKED Murray's plan for a park instead of housing on the Sisley properties, he LIKED the Ballard homeless encampment, and he "wasn't sure" on impact fees)—we asked him to come up with his own LIKES and DISLIKES.
We suggested Sawant as a DISLIKE?
"I do not dislike Kshama Sawant," he said. "We actually get along well. She’s very personable."
He then settled on his own DISLIKE. "I dislike the tone of public discourse today. Nationally, locally. It’s name calling, it’s bullying, it’s not productive. It blocks people from participating."
His example? Ha. Sawant's premier issue.
Rent control. It’s political theater that did nothing. So, that resolution that my colleagues Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant proposed was active in our legislative system for over 100 days, and it was going nowhere. But it was creating a lot of division. It was creating lots of arguments. In my view, even if it had passed it would do nothing to help people with rent or address our affordable housing situation. Zero. That's why after last week's committee voted three-to-three, I moved quickly to put together an alternative. Mine is very specific about three specific outcomes [increase in supply of affordable units, protect renters against sudden and dramatic rent increases, and limit any impact on available units.] It does not get into all the rhetoric of rent control or whatever. It basically says to the state legislature, work with us to get local solutions to local problems. And that could be an array of things. And it passed 8-1.
Burgess, in fact, was critical of Sawant's legislative record as a whole—which he characterized as "rhetoric and slogans and rallies"—challenging us to enumerate her accomplishments. When we said she'd energized the council and created new progressive expectations, he shot back: "How do you measure accomplishments and influence?" He explained: "I would tend to look not at rhetoric and slogans and rallies, I would look at, 'well, what have you done?' What are the specific things that are going to impact the lives of people...that you've done? I think on that measure, the answer is no, she hasn't. What would we point to as council member Sawant's list of accomplishments?"
$15, we said.
"I would say Mayor Murray did that," Burgess said. "And did that in a way that avoided lots of conflict...Anything else on your list?"
The local control rent regulation that council passed yesterday?
"She has taken credit for that," Burgess said dryly.
Stopping dramatic rent increases at Seattle Housing Authority units; Murray was out front on that issue as well.
Burgess didn't respond.