Conlin takes City Council reins: New council president promoting new agenda

Longtime Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin has never been a political firebrand: he's too even-tempered and "Seattle nice." But as the new council president, he has helped the council come up with a 2008 agenda and a set of priorities that deal with everything from gang violence to planting more trees in the city (see sidebar). Conlin is also faced with countering Mayor Greg Nickels' fondness for a top-down, centralized-power structure at City Hall. For example, the mayor at one point changed the ground rules and insisted that council members go through his office with questions for city departments rather than contacting department heads directly, as the council had been doing. "I think, to some extent, we've been off-balance," a diplomatic Conlin said. "I think centralized power is so last century." Perhaps, but Team Nickels has changed its leadership style - at least to some extent, according to Conlin. "They've backed off considerably on that [power structure]."As far as the council president is concerned, a better approach would be to avoid getting into petty fights and to be clear about the council's agenda and role in city government. "People work well with autonomy," he said.Besides, Conline went on to say, Seattle residents aren't interested in seeing the council spend time squabbling with the mayor's office: "Our agenda is to work for the people of Seattle."HANDLING THE ISSUESThe people have a lot on their plates. "In this coming year, we've got a real question about the Pro Parks Levy expiring," he said. In a related issue, the council this year has been charged with coming up with a funding proposal for revamping the Seattle Center, Conlin said.He estimates the price tag will be close to $100 million, and Conlin expects that the council's Committee of the Whole will spend two to three months developing a proposal. Bottom line, though, is there won't be enough money to pay for everything on the wish list for the Seattle Center, he conceded.On a somewhat easier track, the council will need to make some calls on spending the Bridging the Gap transportation dollars, along with implementing projects under the Fire Levy, he said.Other problems are more complicated. "We've got serious public-safety issues we need to address," Conlin said. That includes pedestrian safety and gang violence, but dealing with the mentally ill has also become a priority following the New Year's Eve stabbing death on Capitol Hill.The council launched the diversionary mental-health court in Seattle, but more needs to be done, Conlin noted. King County is taking the lead on that issue, adding that the council has representatives on the county's Board of Health. "But the [federal] funding for mental health has been destroyed in the last 30 years," he said. "At some point, our society is going to have to wake up and say we've made some mistakes we need to pay for."The council president also believes that the Neighborhood Policing plan proposed by the mayor and police chief is not only vital, but that it will be implemented "despite [police] union misgivings," he said.TURNING TO TRANSPORTATIONMega transportation projects such as replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, expanding Sound Transit and finding the money for a new state Route 520 bridge are also council priorities, said Conlin, whom King County Executive Ron Sims appointed to the Sound Transit board this year.The Proposition 1 transportation measure failed at the ballot box because it was too big and too spread out, he said. The proposition was a "very reasonable" step for the region to take, according to Conlin, who qualified his statement. The ballot measure failed, in part, because it covered too many projects and was too complicated, he said. Conlin, on the other hand, supported the proposition because he had the time "to read it through."Conlin favors a surface solution for replacing the Viaduct. "I wrote the resolution for the course we're following," he said of legislation adopted unanimously by the City Council. "I actually feel more optimistic than I have for many years about the Viaduct." OUTSIDE THE POLITICAL ARENAA 10-year veteran of the council, Conlin cut his public-service teeth working in, among other positions, as the director of the YMCA's community and environmental division, and as a master home environmentalist with the organization. He also organized Sustainable Seattle and was one of the founding members of the Puget Soundkeepers Alliance.Conlin enjoys his job with the City Council. "There's a lot of fun and joy in doing this work," he said. But the new council president - who answers his own phone most of the time - denied he's "a total workaholic." Instead, Conlin stressed, he has a life outside of the political arena, uses his vacation time and is actually able to spend time with his wife and two kids.Staff writer-at-large Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]