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Councilmember O’Brien, Seattle’s biking kayaktivist, exits after decade in office

caption: Departing Seattle Councilmember Mike O'Brien says he has no future plans, but is interested in working on climate or homelessness issues.
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Departing Seattle Councilmember Mike O'Brien says he has no future plans, but is interested in working on climate or homelessness issues.
KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

After ten years, Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien is stepping down this month.

"I have nothing next planned," he said. "I'll probably reemerge in the spring with some ideas."

In an interview with KUOW, he said he'd be interested in working on climate issues and the Green New Deal.

"Specifically how do we transition our economy completely off fossil fuels in the next decade in a way that doesn’t put the hardship on the backs of low-income homeowners or workers," he said.

O'Brien said he'd also like to focus on housing and homelessness, and transportation.

"I bike everywhere and want to make sure we have a safe network for all users," he said. "It's great to see modes shifting in our city pretty radically but it needs to keep happening."

Also on his mind: racial justice. He said ending racial inequality is something he's tried to work on as a council member.

Highs and lows

O’Brien said the high points of his time in office involved collaborating with groups seeking change.

"When I was in a kayak out there trying to blockade Shell Oil in the dark of night with a dozen other activists, that was a big memory," he said.

He also referenced working with immigrants who are employed in the taxi and ride share industry, saying it was a hard, but meaningful effort gaining collective bargaining rights for Uber and Lyft drivers.

The city’s attempt to help drivers bargain for better wages has been shot down in court, forcing them to take new approaches.

O’Brien’s lowest point? A land use vote that helped advance King County's juvenile detention facility as part of the Children and Family Justice Center.

“I took some bad votes on that, that I regret," he said, in the context of“trying to be a good ally, especially to young black men and women whose lives have been devastated by incarceration...and better understanding how that criminal justice system impacts those people so differently than my two boys who are teenage white kids.”

"There was an opportunity to — at a minimum — indicate publicly that we were opposed to this,” he said.

O’Brien said he hopes efforts will continue around the county’s Zero Youth Detention initiative.

“A lot rests with [King] County because they run the court system and the jail system. But the Seattle Police Department has a big role in that,” he said. “I think there’s a huge opportunity to continue to work with our police department to find alternatives.”

A divided district

Some in O’Brien’s district will clearly cheer his departure this month. His face has appeared on “recall” flyers and he was lambasted by neighborhood groups like Safe Seattle for not doing more to address unsanctioned homeless encampments.

He blames the vitriol on Seattle’s explosive growth and national politics.

“I think a lot of the change that’s happening is just, in part, the political atmosphere in our country right now,” he said.

Tension erupted last year when O’Brien was shouted down at a community meeting. KUOW called it “the day Seattle Nice died.

“My take on it is it was largely around the homeless crisis,” he said.

O’Brien said his critics promoted what he considered to be failed policies calling for more policing and arrests.

“They were very proactive for hours and hours every day on social media, and actually printing fliers, posters and graffiti around town. Driving around in a van with my face on the side of it. Those types of things.

"I dismissed that as kind of funny at first, like ‘these people clearly aren’t aligned with people in Seattle and if I’m the poster child of what’s wrong for those folks, I’m probably doing the right thing.’

"But they were very persistent and it’s interesting to watch how that persistent kind of attacking, not necessarily coming up with the solutions, but just attacking and attacking, when people that probably have supported me and maybe would still support me but are frustrated with the situation too…it became a thing,” he said.

Shortly afterwards, O’Brien was shoved out of a party in honor of the new Nordic Museum. He blames that fracas on a single individual upset over his support of the missing link connections for the Burke-Gilman bike trail.

“But it fed a larger narrative of, look what’s happening in Seattle politics, people are fed up,” he said.

O’Brien didn’t name names, but implied that the victory of Dan Strauss over business-backed Heidi Wills in District 6 doesn’t exactly vindicate his critics.

“There’s no way for me to point to any election or other as any sort of referendum on that question,” he said. “But just because there’s a bunch of loud vocal voices doesn’t mean that they actually speak for the district.”

Climate legacy

In terms of climate impacts, O’Brien said Seattle did make strides during his tenure, although emissions continued to climb as the city grows.

He said the growth in mass transit ridership stands out for downtown commuters.

“I think almost 50 percent of people are taking a bus, and I think we’re at less than 25 percent of people are driving in a single occupancy vehicle. If you look at the trajectory we’ve been on in the last decade, it’s unprecedented in the rest of the country,” he said.

O’Brien said Seattle’s rules for energy “tuneups” of existing buildings are having an impact as well.

“Even a developer who told the city ‘I’m not going to comply’ finally did it – and then sent us a letter saying, ‘I thought this was going to cost us a lot of money, it’s actually saving me money.’ It’s kind of unheard of!” he said.

But he noted that the impact of I-976, which cuts fees for car tabs, could be “devastating” for local transit if it prevails in court.

In his absence, O’Brien said he thinks the council will continue work on a ban of natural gas in new buildings.

“I was hoping to be able to pass something by the end of the year. But when I announced it, I heard from a lot of folks who will be impacted by that. Some, like Puget Sound Energy, the gas company, I’m not sure they’re ever going to like it, that’s fine.

"But a lot of businesses say, ‘we want to work on this, we want to be carbon-free, but here at the challenges.'"

"So we’re working on a process there. Myself and both some current and future council members have been part of some of those discussions behind the scenes to figure out a way to craft that legislation that gives folks some time to adapt.

"That hopefully will come back in 2020. I won’t be the council member running it, but it would have been nice to see that happen sooner,” he said.

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