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Mike O'Brien knew he'd face awkward moments on the council

The City Council, resolutely in favor of a waterfront tunnel, was joined last year by an ally and friend of the anti-tunnel mayor. So, what about those times when everybody else is clearly working on something else, and O'Brien is left out?

Mike O'Brien

Mike O'Brien Seattle City Council

Whenever the Seattle City Council splits 8-to-1 on the high-profile issue of the proposed waterfront tunnel, Mike O'Brien will be the lonely vote against the rest of his colleagues.

Fifteen months into his first term as a council member, O'Brien admits to some early fretting over how he would get along with his colleagues. But, in a discussion with Crosscut writers and editors on Tuesday (April 12), he said he feels like he and his fellow council members are forging a good working relationship.

Speaking of his election after a campaign in which he opposed the tunnel as a replacement to the Alaskan Way Viaduct,  he said, "From Day One, it was obvious to me and probably everyone else that this a challenge." 

Despite knowing how the other eight felt about the tunnel, O'Brien said, "There was hope I might have room to maneuver. ... But people are pretty entrenched. And the fact that I'm a personal friend of the mayor's, too. That relationship is potentially problematic.”

His friendship with the mayor meant that O'Brien had to worry other council members would be concerned about what they said to him, for fear it would get right back to the mayor. So, he said, he was "very conscious about trying to build trust."

Now, he said, "I feel that, when I show up at work, I have a really good working relationship with my colleagues." Yes, there are times when the halls of the council offices are busy with people running around obviously working on ... something about which O'Brien has been told nothing.

“But, he said, "I do feel that despite that issue of the tunnel, I work pretty well with the Council. We've been able to draw lines around that.”

He and council members have worked together on issues such as carbon neutrality and yellow pages-style phone book deliveries. There are personal moments, too. He said he and his wife were part of a home dinner party over the weekend with Council Members Sally Clark and Tim Burgess.

And O'Brien clearly doesn't see the creation of good working relationships (other council members similarly tend to see O'Brien as fitting in) as just his doing. At first, he said, he was "overthinking" how to behave with his colleagues. And about his remark that "people" are entrenched on the tunnel, he said, "I'm people, too."

O'Brien was asked whether the City Council's frequent denial of zoning requests for more intensive development didn't work against the goal of affordable housing, not to mention the density and carbon neutrality that he and other council members supposedly support. O'Brien said that, as a former board member of Great City, "I'm a big believer" in increasing density.

He said that, if you look at Vancouver, B.C., or Portland's Pearl District, tall buildings have brought about density. But Copenhagen, despite having low-rise buildings, achieves "all the density they need" for good, environmentally conscious transportation, including bicycling, he said.

In Seattle, as the city looks at what is appropriate, there is a need to focus on the type of housing that someone who is making $40,000 a year can afford. “It's probably not a high-rise [unit], without a subsidy, O'Brien said. "But how about six stories near light rail?. ..Let's talk about Beacon Hill.” He noted there are single-family units within a block of a light-rail station, a location that many would say would be ideal for affordable, multiple-family housing.

The commercial phone book distribution ordinance ties into Seattle's waste reduction efforts. O'Brien said the ordinance, passed in an amended version earlier this year, could almost be viewed as symbolic, but that with the city trying to achieve an aggressive goal of recycling 60 percent of all solid waste by 2012, any reduction is helpful and meaningful.

The council had voted 8-to-1 in the initial vote last fall to impose a 14-cent fee on each yellow pages-style phone book distributed in the city and to create an opt-out list for residents who don't want the books. The stance became unanimous in February when, in response to a lawsuit, the council dropped an additional tonnage fee and Council Member Jean Godden, the lone dissenter earlier, pronounced herself satisfied that the city was no longer interfering with free-speech rights.


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