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SGN exclusive interview: New City Council member Mike O'Brien
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SGN exclusive interview: New City Council member Mike O'Brien

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien is a long-time Sierra Club activist, but he is brand-new to city government.

'I'm 21 days old,' he laughs.

He shared his impressions of the job and his political agenda with SGN this week.

"First, I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I didn't really expect to," he told SGN. "I gave it a lot of thought before and during the campaign. Is it something I'd be good at, is it something I felt was important to do. I never really thought it would be enjoyable."

"And second," he continued, "I'm encouraged by what I've learned. I'm encouraged in building relationships with my colleagues & we can have disagreements on policy, but we share the same values."

You don't have to look far for policy disagreements. Like new mayor Mike McGinn - but unlike his City Council colleagues - O'Brien was a foe of the deep bore tunnel slated to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

In spite of a unanimous City Council vote to proceed with the tunnel last October, O'Brien still lists "opposing the deep bore tunnel project" as one of his legislative priorities on his City Council web page.

"I don't think the plan to build the tunnel is completely baked yet," he explains. "I think there's still an opportunity to work on it."

Asked if he saw even a remote possibility of changing minds on the issue, O'Brien replied, "Well, I'm not bringing anything new to the discussion. It's so hashed out already I can't bring any new info to the discussion. People are pretty entrenched."

"What may change," he continued, "is the framework in which we talk about the tunnel. The timeline may get extended. Costs may go up. I hope we'll talk about it before we go ahead and spend the money."

"On the broader issue of transportation, though, we're pretty closely aligned," he says of his City Council colleagues. "We want to invest in transit, not in roads. We want to see people-scale living areas. And global warming. We want to pay attention to what this is doing to the planet we live on."

Like his new colleague Sally Bagshaw, who was also interviewed by SGN, O'Brien seems to be predicting an era of collaboration in city government.

"An era of mutual respect," he says, "where we have vigorous debate, but productive, not mean-spirited. I'm encouraged by what I've seen so far."

O'Brien continues with an example. "Eight of my colleagues sent a letter to the mayor [questioning his proposal on the seawall] last week. I didn't sign it. But that didn't alter our relationship. No one has been mean to me because I didn't sign."

"A lot of my colleagues felt like it was sprung on them," he explained. "I don't think that's what the mayor intended. There needs to be more dialogue about that."

O'Brien has known the new mayor for many years, far longer than any other Council member.

"I've known Mike McGinn for a number of years," he says. "I worked at his law firm, I worked with him through the Sierra Club, through Great Cities. I've never known him to be a bully. He's always been open and accessible. He values open debate."

"He has a lot to prove to folks at City Hall," O'Brien adds. "But he's done a lot of outreach. I'm optimistic we'll see much more cooperation between the second floor [where the City Council has its offices] and the fifth floor [the mayor's office]."

O'Brien looks forward to a legislative agenda based on what he believes are the Council members' shared values.

"There's an alignment of similar values," he says. "How to invest in the city in a way that's compatible with the planet we live on. The specific legislation will be very broad. It will involve transportation, jobs, land use&."

O'Brien believes that transportation issues may be the toughest for the Council to deal with.

"On 520, we have the same issues as the tunnel," he says. "I agree with Ed [Murray] that replacing 520 is really problematic. You think the tunnel was challenging. Wait till we get to 520!"

O'Brien outlined two factors he believes will make 520 replacement particularly difficult.

"We have similar problems to the tunnel. But we're going to drop it in the middle of very established neighborhoods," he says. "And then throw in the Eastside communities - Bellevue, Kirkland, Issaquah - that have a very different approach to transportation problems."

Noting that Seattle's unemployment rate is now above 9%, O'Brien also wants to prioritize jobs creation.

"We have a couple of layers we can think about," he says. "City government has to figure out how to reorganize so that it doesn't put roadblocks in the way of people who have ideas to create businesses and jobs. We want to encourage and foster that."

"In terms of direct city investment - to the extent we have funds to invest, and we don't have much - we can invest in infrastructure projects," he adds.

"Invest in transit," O'Brien insists. "That creates new jobs, more so than roads projects. Studies show you get more sustained growth from transit."

O'Brien also says the City can play a positive role in facilitating financing for energy-efficient building projects.

"Specifically, energy conservation measures," he says. "Green building [is] kind of a buzzword now, but we can make buildings more energy-efficient, and the energy savings will more than pay back the cost of the investment."

"It's a win-win-win prospect," he continues. "You create jobs, you reduce energy dependence on the Middle East, and you reduce the city's carbon footprint."

In spite of his optimism, O'Brien is realistic enough to recognize that not all the Council's decisions will be harmonious.

"We made a tough decision on a text amendment on South Lake Union to permit a slightly different building form," he says.

Only Nick Licata voted against the proposal to rezone a Vulcan property to allow up to 40 feet of extra height. Bruce Harrell disqualified himself. The other seven City Council members, including O'Brien, voted Yes.

The decision was protested by the Seattle Displacement Coalition and neighborhood activists.

"Folks who live in the neighborhood felt we were short-circuiting the process, the neighborhood plans," O'Brien explains. "And indeed, we were short-circuiting it. It was not an easy decision, but in this economy, that's the tradeoff."

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