City Council Member Mike O'Brien, who ran on a progressive platform, says he will support Tim Burgess's aggressive-solicitation bill when the council votes on Monday, almost ensuring its passage.
But a phone conversation reveals that O'Brien doesn’t quite grasp what he's voting on. "I am following other folks' lead," O’Brien says. “I am not a legal expert and not a public safety expert.”
As of this afternoon, three members of the council are planning to vote against the measure. If O'Brien were to vote against it, that would be four votes against it—in which case, McGinn says he would veto it. The council can override a veto if they have six votes.
“I am giving council member Burgess some leeway because he puts a lot of energy into policing and justice,” O'Brien continues. Burgess is a former police officer, and he worked on this bill because the Downtown Seattle Association lobbied the council for several years. But data disprove the bill's “findings”—claims required to justify restricting free speech—showing that Burgess has misrepresented the bill from the outset.
O’Brien counters that Burgess, the most conservative member of the city council, “has the right values.”
The values in this are largely the values of conservative downtown business interests. “I find that the people who pat me on the back are people who I didn't have the support of," he says. In other words, the people who are satisfied about this legislation passing on Monday are the people he ran against, basically.
So why does O'Brien (who admits he doesn't understand this stuff very well) support the agenda that he ran against in the election? He says there is a “small element” of street disorder downtown that the bill—which fines violators $50—would help solve. However, he notes, “I don’t see any good data to quantify it.” Study after study shows that foot patrols, human services, and police presence are the proven solutions to street disorder. Burgess's bill doesn't provide for any of that. And O'Brien acknowledges that we already have a law that bans aggressive begging.
“I think the mechanism in this bill is less about the specifics of the ordinance and more about signaling the symbolic action of asking the police to take these issues more seriously,” O'Brien says. But O'Brien has got the politics here backward: The SPD has been lobbying the council to pass this bill.
Asked about concerns that the bill creates problems for due process because defendants have no right to an attorney—one of many concerns raised by a Seattle Human Rights Commission report—O’Brien was silent for a long time.
The bill says that any suspect who doesn't pay the $50 fine or misses a court date, likely scenarios for homeless people without $50 to their name or an address to receive mail, would automatically be guilty of a criminal misdemeanor. The problem, as the human rights commission noted, is that issuing a citation gives a cop a low burden of proof and gives a suspect no legal right to a lawyer, and the suspect easily winds up with a criminal charge.
“This potentially could be a law on the books that is a problem for civil rights or free speech. I have serious concerns about the law’s ramifications for things I care a lot about. But this is a tough call for me, but it think those fears will not come to be materialized, and if they do you will find people reassessing their position.”
Given his concerns and knowing that it’s based on faulty data, why not reassess his position now, before Monday's vote?
He says that concerns with the bill "are legit," adding, "This opinion of mine may change over time." But for now, he's sticking with Burgess because, “This is not my field of expertise, for sure."