(Mike O'Brien reversed his position moments before the vote. Good job.)
City Council Member Mike O'Brien was clear when he ran for office: He opposed punitive measures for panhandlers and he disagreed with Tim Burgess's aggressive solicitation bill. He said we have sufficient laws in place already, that harsh penalties wouldn't work, and human services would more effective. And Burgess's bill, as many authorities have noted already, relies on a punishment that is likely to result in a criminal conviction.
But now O'Brien is claiming the opposite. He says that today at 2:00 p.m. he will vote for the bill he opposed when he ran for office and repeatedly objected to at forums and in interviews. He was running against Robert Rosencrantz—who supported the bill—and O'Brien wanted to make to clear he disagreed with Burgess and Rosencrantz.
In an interview with the Stranger, O'Brien said that he opposed punitive measures to deal with problem panhandling:
We need to make investments so these people have better alternatives without panhandling. Burgess's bill—I just don’t see sticking panhandlers in jail as solving our problem. If we have a panhandling epidemic, and I am not convinced we do, that is not a failure of people who panhandle but a failure of our system to provide support and options for these people. And I think we as a society have a responsibility to look out for the people who have been left behind.
He was also clear in his opposition to the mechanisms of the bill during an interview with PubliCola last October: "I think the police have rules in place to address panhandling as it is. If the alternative is to simply arrest those people and we take that person and put them in a jail at a big cost to [society], I don’t think that’s a good option. The police can come and tell anyone to move along already."
John Fox, director of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, recalls attending a downtown forum shortly before the general election when O'Brien opposed the bill: "There were the flashcards in the lightning round session. They asked yes or no on the panhandling law, and O'Brien flipped up a no." Real Change director Tim Harris says that opposing the panhandling bill was O'Brien's "biggest applause line at the Rainier Cultural Center candidate's forum." Others reached over the weekend say O'Brien opposed the aggressive-panhandling measure just before the general election at the Wing Luke Asian Museum.
In the Ocrober 21 issue of Real Change, the newspaper reported:
The two candidates diverge on Councilmember Tim Burgess’ proposed “anti-aggressive panhandling” law: Rosencrantz supports it — he sees “aggressive” panhandling as a public safety issue that, he admits, needs to be delicately balanced with the preservation of civil liberties; O’Brien opposes it on the grounds that it further criminalizes poverty and that panhandling “is not a career choice” but a signal that the city is making the wrong investments when there “are no opportunities” for the poor.
Speaking generally about how to handle criminal justice, O'Brien told the Defender Association in a survey:
With the coming threat of a new city jail, I would start with programs aimed at reducing the rates of incarceration, and specifically looking at pre-arrest diversion programs as a more effective and less expensive way of dealing with low level crimes.
But the mechanism of the bill would stick panhandlers with a criminal conviction, punishable by jail. "Contrary to proponents' claims that the ordinance offers the 'lightest and most effective response,' (i.e., a civil infraction) to aggressive solicitation," the Seattle Human Rights Commission wrote in a report last month, "it places indigent offenders in greater danger of criminal outcomes and simultaneously limits their access to legal representation that would help protect them from those outcomes.... Vulnerable populations — including those experiencing homelessness, mental health needs, chemical dependency, or low-incomes — are disproportionately more likely not to appear in court or pay the fine and thus, are more likely to find themselves facing a failure-to-respond charge, which is a criminal misdemeanor. A misdemeanor is punishable by jail and/or fines."
But O'Brien hasn't cast his vote yet. There's still time. He can still follow through on the platform he promised the voters who supported him. Or he can follow "other folks' lead," the lead of conservative downtown business interests, who are the same people he ran against.