Is Tim Burgess 'Satan'?

The Seattle City Councilman picks up the Mark Sidran mantle and moves against "quality of life" crimes, a rebranding of Seattle's long-running debate over civility laws.
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Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess.

The Seattle City Councilman picks up the Mark Sidran mantle and moves against "quality of life" crimes, a rebranding of Seattle's long-running debate over civility laws.

If you've been around Seattle long enough to remember the civility wars of the '90s, you might remember that The Stranger once announced that then City Attorney Mark Sidran "is Satan." (His successor, Tom Carr, earned the title of "Satan Lite.") A decade later, Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess is starting to move on a clean-up-the-streets agenda, which should be no surprise as Burgess is an ex-Seattle policeman. He says he'll shortly be announcing (by the end of the month) a council initiative with the support of many in the social service community and, he expects, the new City Attorney Pete Holmes by his side.

Burgess came down to Crosscut's for an editorial brown-bag and to talk about about how things are going. Burgess says he's willing to cut the new mayor some slack — "generally, he's doing well," Burgess says &mdash and believes in allowing Mike McGinn a honeymoon period to settle in. But it's clear that Burgess disagrees with him on major policy issues, like the downtown tunnel and the seawall strategy.

Burgess doesn't believe for a second that McGinn will support the tunnel if only the city is taken off the hook for cost overruns. Instead, Burgess thinks the new mayor is trying to block the tunnel with delaying tactics that are bound to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: cost overruns. (He also thinks the city is already off that hook, in part because the famous clause in the legislation doesn't specify the "city of Seattle" as the entity responsible for cost overruns on the tunnel but rather a more vague reference to Seattle citizens and affected property owners.) The mayor's tactics are "disingenuous," Burgess says, citing his conversations with McGinn: "He wants to stop the tunnel," regardless of his muddier claims on the subject.

Don't bother to look for shoe prints on Burgess' behind: he says he's not kicking himself about not running against Nickels last year, when he flirted briefly with jumping into the race and quickly retreated. Burgess felt he was too new to the game, too inexperienced, for a mayoral run. (It was pointed out to him that with his little-more-than-a-year on the council at decision-time, he would have been most experienced candidate in a final that wound up featuring McGinn and Joe Mallahan.)

Burgess won't say if he's running for mayor next time (he has to worry about re-election in 2011), but he's clearly thinking about it and staking out leadership on city-wide issues, from public safety to education. Indeed, when talking about schools, Burgess is almost, well, McGinn-like in wanting to see the city much more involved in improving education, though he's not talking about a takeover of the district, but more cooperation between city government, the council, the mayor's office, the school board, and the district.

Public safety is a major item, and Burgess will be a leader on the council in approving McGinn's choice for a chief to succeed Gil Kelikowske. When asked about his civility laws push (e.g. crackdowns on panhandlers) he chooses to frame it differently from past debates. Where Sidran came-on as a Seattle-style Rudolph Giuliani to some people, and where the emphasis was on laws (like an anti-sidewalk-sitting ordinance), Burgess has framed his effort as an initiative to deal with "quality of life crimes," the kind of street stuff that make Pioneer Square and much of Belltown unpleasant much of the time. By framing it as a quality of life issue, it not only sounds less draconian, but also something Seattleites can relate to. Quality of life is what we're about, after all.

Burgess also has a better approach than the intelligent-but-prickly Sidran, who narrowly missed becoming mayor running against Greg Nickels in 2001. Burgess' brand of law sounds a bit warmer and fuzzier than Sidranism, yet without the ooey-gooey idealism of former Mayor Norm Rice who once said he wanted a chief who would "book 'em and hug 'em." So far, there's nothing in it that one would call "Burgessism," unless it's a civility crackdown that doesn't sound like it comes at the end of a nightstick.

Burgess' approach is not just about stricter laws, but also putting more cops on the street with the time and support to be a presence and act proactively instead of chasing 911 calls. He wants more cops walking the beat, he wants real-time tracking of crimes (rather than weeks afterward) so the department can deploy officers more effectively. "Cops matter," he says, and their street presence is a proven deterrent to crime.

Burgess also doesn't sees civil liberties and civility as an either-or choice. He thinks Seattle's libertarian impulses and sympathy for the rights of street people have created a false dichotomy. This is not about being pro- or anti-homeless, he says. In many cases, the very people protected by enforcing higher standards of street behavior are street people themselves. Peeing in the streets and aggressive panhandling aren't protected forms of "speech," and greater street safety leads to more liberty, not less.

When asked what he thinks about Mark Sidran's efforts, which sowed political division and suspicion, Burgess says that Sidran "was 10 years ahead of his time." In other words, not a Satanic pariah but a visionary. And while he won't critique Sidran's previous efforts, he does believe the climate in Seattle has changed in the last decade: the citizens, he believes, are less sympathetic or tolerant of street disorder. One reason could be that the problems have not gone away but have gotten worse in some areas, especially those that are targeted for urban growth.

Perhaps "Satan's" time has come at last.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.