Last week Council member Tim Burgess announced that he would not run for re-election next year. Yesterday I had a thoughtful, far-ranging interview with Burgess, touching on his reasons for making this his last term, reflections on the past year and the political climate in the city, his support for the Mayor, and his plans for 2017 and beyond.
You put out a statement listing your reasons for not running for re-election. Care to elaborate?
No, not particularly. I just think it’s time to move on and try something else. But I don’t know what “something else” is. But I have a year to figure it out.
Do you expect to stay active in local politics after this?
Probably. Especially because of the importance of cities. We’ve certainly seen in Seattle that city policy can not only achieve the outcome that we want locally but is influential with others as well. We’ve seen that with the $15 minimum wage and pick sick and safe leave. We have definitely seen that with police reform and the adaptation of many of our police reform measures in other cities around the country, and how the Justice Department keeps taking our folks to other cities. We’ve seen it with preschool and how cities can do what the federal government and states have not done adequately. So yeah, cities are critically important.
So you’ll be staying in Seattle then?
Oh yeah. I’m a Seattle native, my wife’s a Seattle native, we won’t leave the city.
On the Seattle Channel last week you said: “It’s probably the best job I’ve ever had.” Why?
Well, for two reasons. First, it blends a lot of my previous life experiences, like my police time, my business experience. So that’s been very satisfying that I can grab from experiences earlier in life and apply them here. But second, the gratification comes from some of the things I’ve been able to accomplish. I still think preschool is what I’m most proud of, especially because we faced a very disingenuous opposition to that measure on the ballot, and Seattle voters were able to see truth there, and I really believe that high quality preschool can change a child’s life and all the evidence supports that, so that’s very significant. But other things as well. I think getting the city to fund the gun violence study that the Harborview researchers did the first time in our country’s history that a city has funded that kind of research — blocked at the federal level by the NRA.
Any regrets? Specific regrets from the past year? What you like a do-over on?
I don’t know I’d say I have regrets. I’ve learned a lot here, and I’ve learned how to better prepare and advocate legislation.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next year before you leave office? What are your top legislative priorities for 2017?
I want to make sure that we have a clear plan for fully funding preschool. The preschool pilot was approved for four years, so that funding expires at the end of 2018. And I think in 2017 we will work to put together the funding plan that we can act upon in 2018. So that will be one major priority. Another priority will be to make certain that the police reform efforts we have done are truly anchored in the culture of the police department. Going back to the early 1990’s, we have had a series of police reform efforts. Something happens, the Mayor forms a special blue-ribbon committee, they do their work, we adopt a reform, and then two, four, five years later, we repeat that cycle. And we’ve done that at least four times since the early 1990’s. And this current reform effort I’m hoping is the last, because we do it right and it takes hold in the police department. And the jury’s out on that. I think (Police Chief) Kathy O’Toole has done a superb job, maybe in some ways more than we expected of her, but unless it’s culturally anchored it will be like the other, it will be fleeting. So that’s a big priority.
You have a unique perspective on police reform because of your time as a police officer.
Yes, I spent almost eight years there.
Do you think we’ll actually get there? You said “the jury is out.”
I certainly hope so.
How long do you think it will take?
Well, there’s two answers to that. One is how long do you think it will take to get the court to say we’re in compliance, and I think that’s going to take one or two more years. The more important question is how long will it take to truly accomplish the kind of cultural change that we want. And I don’t know; that could be one or two years, it could be five years. The big test of that will be when the next chief of police comes, what will happen in the police department. We don’t know when that will be. Hopefully a long time, because I am very high on Kathy O’Toole. You know that she has fired more police officers or officers have resigned in lieu of being fired, over the last year and a half than the previous five years combined. So she is no slouch when it comes to enforcing the rules and maintaining high standards and I think she is to be applauded for that. Sometimes I don’t know if my colleagues and the people of Seattle understand what a tremendous asset she is to the city.
Are you going to do anything differently over the next year? Should we expect you to be more outspoken?
I’m outspoken when I need to be. I don’t think there will be a big difference in style. I think there are some new efforts after the first of the year that we’ll launch and we’ll see how those go.
I’m not ready to talk about them yet.
Efforts from your office?
Yeah, from my office. Stay tuned.
The Council changed dramatically a year ago, with the move to districts, and several new faces. Do you feel that the Council has been an effective legislative body over the last year?
Yes and no. I guess my biggest critique of myself and my colleagues — so I’m in this with them — I think we easily get distracted into issues that, while they may be important to many, are just not something that we should be spending our time on. The camping legislation is example of that in my mind where we allowed activists to advance legislation that was seriously flawed, which is why I voted against it on being introduced. And we spent weeks on that topic, to the detriment of other things. And the proof that I was right, that the ordinance was seriously flawed, is how fast the Council sponsors scrambled to try to fix it, and spent weeks trying to fix it and couldn’t, and it just hasn’t been advanced, although I’m told it’s going to come back in January. But that was an example of where the body, the Council as a whole, lost its discipline and it focus, and we allowed a measure to be introduced that was not ready.
Do you feel that you personally have been effective over the last year?
Yes, I think I was very effective in the budget process: much more transparency, much more openness about what we were considering and earlier in the process. I was very pleased with some of my budget adds, and I think the Council did a good job on the budget. The Mayor proposes a budget, and we “tinker.” We tinker on the edges. We rarely go deep on a budget issues and ask — I’ve got Seattle Center right in front of me, so I’ll use that — is the budget for Seattle Center really what we want? Do we have enough people, too many people, not enough people, are they doing the thing we — I mean, we don’t do anything that comes close to zero-based budgeting. And maybe we should, but we tend to tinker on the edges.
Let’s talk about diversity. One of the biggest — both claimed and proven — benefits of diversity in organizations is that it leads to better decision-making. Certainly the Council has a lot of diversity at the moment in several different dimensions — do you see that helping, hurting, or both?
Well I don’t think it hurts.
Traditionally, the people who research these things say that you get better decisions, but it always takes longer and it tends to be more conflicted along the way as you try to resolve these different perspectives. You could argue we’ve certainly seen a lot of that on the Council.
I think that diversity is a strength, and frankly we had it before the switch to districts. We had good male/female split, we had racial diversity, we definitely had geographic diversity. If you plotted where Council members lived before the switch to districts, they were all over the city. So diversity’s a good thing. The question that’s more important to me is, do we have a diversity of ideas? And in the area of diversity of ideas, I think sometimes we are lacking. And instead there’s a tendency to substitute ideological agendas that may or may not be in the people’s best interests. An example of that is the Wells Fargo banking ordinance that was introduced by Council member Sawant. That ordinance is not ready for prime time either, and my frustration with it, while the goal for setting a high standard for who we’re going to do business with, is commendable, all the stuff that’s put on that ordinance, it’s terrible. And so that’s an example of “there’s a bit of a good idea there, let’s make sure we have high standards for who we do business with.” But all the other stuff that comes with it tends to just cloud the issues, and I have to spend my time now coming up with an alternative that… anyway, it’s frustrating.
The far-left in Seattle likes to deride you as a “conservative,” while many in the center and right describe you as a “voice of sanity” on the Council. How do you see yourself?
I’m just Tim. I think I bring a varied background to my job. I like to study issues. I like to read about them. I like to look at data. I take my job very seriously. And I’m not one to be influenced by the political winds or ideological arguments. I’m much more likely to focus on what’s the best thing for the people of Seattle.
What do you say to progressives who say that you’re too conservative?
Look at my voting record. I don’t think that that charge is accurate and it doesn’t bother me. I still go about my job and try to do the right thing.
Council member Sawant frequently criticizes you and other elected officials as “corporate Democrats,” in the pocket of business interests including landlords and developers. How much influence do you think campaign finance — including PACs and independent expenditures — actually influences local politics?
Zero. Absolutely zero. Look at the legislation that we have passed that protects renters. I told some of my supporters from the Rental Housing Association or the Washington Real Estate Association, “I’m going to vote in support of this, and here’s why.” So I suppose the fact that they contributed to my campaign means they got a phone call from me, telling them here’s how I’m going to vote. But I was voting against their position. And I’ve done that regularly. Paid sick and safe leave. I was the guy that negotiated the final deal that got five votes and passed. The business community was very opposed to that. I analyzed it and thought “you know what, this is necessary, and it’s the right thing to do, so even though I have a lot of support in the business community one could say I voted against their interests. The Police Guild supported me. I have definitely voted in ways that they have not appreciated, including introducing the legislation that repealed that ban on hiring outsiders on the command staff. So I don’t think that contributions like that have a direct impact on how any of us, and I would say this for all of my colleagues, I just don’t think that’s the culture that we have here in Seattle.
The political landscape has become very complicated in Seattle. There’s the pro-low-wage-worker, pro-tenant, pro-immigrant and pro-minority far left that’s fairly anti-business, anti-gentrification for some very good reasons, and thus anti-developer. There’s a far right (by Seattle’s standards) group trying to protect mostly-white single-family neighborhoods from overdevelopment and they are anti-density, anti-upzone, and largely also anti-developer. Then there’s the “Urbanist” movement, which is pro-density, pro-upzone, probably not pro-developer per se but they certainly understand that developers need to be part of the solution. How do you navigate this space as a City Council member?
Well, we listen to all sides, and I tend, more often than not, to fall in that middle group, the urbanist pro-growth group. Not always, but if you look at my voting record I’m more often there than I am on either of the other two. And I do that because it’s in the best interest of the city. I’d much rather have growth occurring than the opposite. And we can just look at American cities that are in decline and I don’t want Seattle to be like that. I also have been very strong in my support to protect industrial and manufacturing lands. Now some on that side thought that my Arena vote did not do that but I’ll be proven right on that.
It feels like the push for ideological purity within political parties/movements has strengthened both nationally and locally, at both ends of the political spectrum. How should we deal with that at the local level?
And it’s dangerous. It’s incredibly dangerous, nationally and locally.
How do you deal with that as an elected official?
I think it’s what I talked about earlier. I try to study the issues, I try to get the evidence, look at the facts, I love to read the academic literature, half of which I can’t understand anyway, but I do it. And I try to make decisions that are best for the common good. And I think if we were to elect more people that are less ideologically driven, the city will be a better place.
Public comment at Council meetings seems to be dysfunctional, with a regular cast of characters who show up and waste time, and activist groups of all sorts demanding that they be allowed to speak at great length, often repeating the same message and occasionally choosing to disrupt the meeting. How do you think about public comment/participation in Council meetings, and are there ways you’d like to see it changed?
It’s important to hear from the public. I joked to some of my colleagues during the budget process that we should institute a new rule that if you are someone that works for an organization receiving city funding you should have to disclose that at the beginning of your public comment. And my colleagues were mixed on that. But that might be a good idea, because most of the people who come and testify during our budget deliberations are self-interested, conflicted individuals who are basically saying “give me more money in my organization.” And if it were a lobbyist for some corporatist group somewhere, some of my colleagues would be outraged that they would be standing in front of us and asking for that. So maybe we should do that; maybe we should have a requirement that if you have a city contract, you should have to disclose that at the beginning of your city testimony. I think what the Mayor is doing in terms of trying to broaden the input from the community is absolutely excellent, because even outside of our public comment but in the system that the city set up back in the ’90s, it was restricted to a few people who had the time to go to meetings and do all that stuff. Which is why the Council approved unanimously all that stuff. We all saw all of that as a good move to broaden the conversation. It’s why the camping ordinance was stopped, because suddenly, what I’ll call “normal” citizens showed up, and we’re not used to that. They packed City Hall on two, maybe three occasions, and Council went “whoa, who are these folks? I’ve never seen these people.”
Under what circumstances is it appropriate for elected officials to organize/encourage activist groups to show up en masse to Council public comment sessions?
Does that happen?
Council member Sawant does it.
Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s not particularly troubling to me. What’s troubling to me is when they engage in disruptive behavior and she’s unwilling to ask them to stop. In one of our budget meetings I turned to her and asked her, “Council member Sawant, would you be willing to address our guests and ask them to follow our rules and our protocols?” And she refused. So that’s unfortunate.
So let me ask you this then: to what extent is it appropriate to require civility in public discourse from people who believe that their civil rights and in some cases their human rights are being trampled?
I think in the Council Chambers, our job is to do our work, and we need to give voice to those people but I don’t think that it’s appropriate to disrupt our meetings. Or to interfere with other people who want to give comment who may have different opinions. Now I say that with a high regard for civil disobedience in our country. It is central to our democracy. So we walk a fine line there where we want to give voice to everyone, but they need to do it in a way that allows other to also speak out.
How much do activist groups really influence the Council’s actions? We can look at the SODO Arena, the North Precinct, the move-in fees cap, the U District rezone, the affordable housing $29 million bond versus the $160 million bond. Do you think their influence is too much, too little, or close to right?
No, it’s not too much. I don’t blame the activists. If I have any criticism at all it’s when my colleagues succumb to their pressure knowing full well that it’s not good for public policy. That’s more frustrating to me than people coming in and advocating for their position. That’s their right and that’s the essence of who we are as America. So, yeah, sometimes it’s irritating when our meetings are disrupted and all that stuff, but I think we’ve tolerated that pretty well. It’s discouraging when my colleagues succumb to that pressure, when there’s not really a solid, rational basis to do so.
Changing topic: Do you support the Mayor’s bid for re-election?
Where do you think he’s been strongest and weakest?
Well, I’ll address the strengths side. He has been incredibly focused and purposeful on police reform, and I’m very grateful on that. He has been good on budgeting and sticking to evidence-based, outcome-based decisions by and large, mostly…
Perhaps with the exception of Pronto.
Well, yeah. It’s interesting that he doesn’t claim that as his, really, but…
But let’s be honest: he’s good at disavowing things when they turn sour.
Yes. As all good politicians are. And Pronto’s going to come up in January and February again. We keep getting monthly reports, and it keeps going downhill.
Let’s talk about the Mayor’s leadership on the homeless crisis. From one perspective, it certainly looks like a bunch of misfires: the State of Emergency declaration that really didn’t accomplish anything, the Jungle, unsanctioned homeless encampment removals and that process through a whole year, the long delay in getting the Pathways Home plan released to the point where it really couldn’t be evaluated before the budget talks began, the miscommunications around funding for transitional housing. Thirteen months after the State of Emergency, things are pretty much the same out on the street. Care to defend the Mayor’s leadership on that?
It’s a very complicated topic. The New York Times had a long story yesterday on San Francisco and tent cities that was interesting. I’m not going to be critical of the Mayor because I think the Council also holds responsibility. So if I’m going to be critical, I’ll be critical of all of us, myself included. I think Seattle is a funny place on this topic because we want to be compassionate, we want to take care of the vulnerable in our city. That’s all excellent. But then we have public safety issues that come up around homelessness and we’re so conflicted about which of them we should be doing that we become paralyzed. And I think that starting with Mayor McGinn, the city shifted into this state of paralysis around homelessness that’s lasted now for probably close to seven or eight years. Maybe six years is more accurate. And so we have the proliferation of these ad hoc encampments all over town. We have hundreds of them. And all of the associated problems — and significant problems with those. And we have a homeless service delivery model that is seriously flawed. And we’re just paralyzed.
So how do we get out of this?
It’s going to take incredibly strong leadership, and I keep encouraging Mayor Murray to provide that leadership. When Pathways Home came out, within days a couple of my colleagues were talking against it, and parroting what the providers had told them, because the providers are incredibly afraid that they’re going to lose funding. And they know they can’t show performance, and their fear is legitimate. The question will be: will we have the courage to de-fund the programs that don’t work? And the jury’s out on that, and we won’t see until late next year when the RFP responses come out.
One of the possible criticisms of the budget process that just finished was that it was a bad sign for having the discipline to do that. A bunch of the funding for the providers was added back in.
Yes. Now, it was a relatively small amount of money, I think less than $300,000, but we had an opportunity to make a statement that we’re going to stand for greater accountability, better outcomes, all that stuff, and we didn’t do it.
Changing topics again: Boeing just announced that they’re going to be looking at more layoffs in 2017. Do you worry that Seattle’s economy is becoming too dependent on Amazon?
I don’t know if I worry, although there’s a basic law of physics that what goes up fast can come down fast. And I’ve joked with Amazon leadership about that, and they are very confident that they have a model that is sustainable for the long term. Boeing goes through cycles. The Seattle economy is much more diversified now than it was in the early 70’s when the big Boeing crisis hit. We’re better off now than we were in the early 70’s, that’s for sure. But even today, when Boeing hiccups, that affects us. And if Amazon were to do that, we would feel that too. But that’s true of a lot of the high-tech businesses, the bio-science businesses. We have an issue coming up the first part of the year related to bio/health tax issues, where I introduced an ordinance several years ago that waived the B&O tax on grant money received by nonprofits for research in the biosciences and health. The argument was that we shouldn’t be taxing those grants because they will be invested to lead to great research findings. That has to be renewed next year. It will be interesting to see how some of my colleagues treat that, because it’s our form of a tax forgiveness measure. I think it’ll pass and be renewed, but it will be interesting to see what the conversation is.
Those are interesting things to do when you’re trying to attract an industry to an area, but that industry is here now. Do you need to continue it to keep them here, much like Council member’s Sawant’s budget item to remove the international finance B&O tax rate?
She took cheap shots during that whole thing, because that was done to attract a company from Tacoma to Seattle — Russell — and when they told us “We’ve chosen Seattle if you can match the same tax we already pay in Tacoma,” and that’s a rate that Tacoma and the State of Washington had adopted, but Seattle had never adopted. And so we said “Sure, we’ll match the Tacoma and state rate,” and we gave them that, but now four or five years later, we said — and we were very open and transparent with Russell about this — we said “We don’t need to do that now.” And so we unanimously rescinded that. And I got the argument for that. I didn’t like the rhetoric and all the cheap shots, but I got the core of that argument. The waiver of the B&O tax on research funds, though, that’s not done to attract those companies here. That’s done to allow that research to flourish. So if somebody get a $500,000 grant from the federal government for R&D in cancer research, why should the City of Seattle tax that grant money? It’s nothing else that we’re talking about, it’s just that flow-through money.
Because that grant money is going to hire people here in the city, and the city needs to provide services to support those people.
This waiver only applies to nonprofit organizations in bio-health.
Any last thoughts?
Another reporter asked me “What have you accomplished?” So I wrote up that list. Here’s a copy.
Here’s another idea. You remember when the federal government funded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which became PBS, and then later they funded NPR, and the whole argument was, post-Watergate, or maybe part of it was before Watergate, was that it’s a legitimate public investment to make sure we have an objective, independent media. I think that argument is even stronger today, and locally we should be making that argument. So there’s been a proposal moving around quietly to create a Center for Public Media at Seattle Center, where we already have Channel 9, and Crosscut has moved in there, we have KEXP. KOUW and KNKX — they’re looking for space. What if we created a situation at Seattle Center where the city invested in some of the capital to create this space and we had the Center for Public Media so that we would have objective, independent reporting… When I was a journalist we had 15 people covering City Hall. Now the media either can’t afford it or aren’t interested. And that’s why I think there’s justification for a Center for Public Media in Seattle.