Politics & Government

New councilman feels ‘perfectly at home’ in Tacoma

In early fall, Joe Lopez and his wife, Evelyn, casually talked about him running for the Tacoma City Council at some point in the future.

They never thought the opportunity would arise so quickly. Councilman Anders Ibsen announced in November that he would temporarily vacate his seat to train with the U.S. Marine Corps reserves, kicking off the council’s search for an interim replacement.

“It was somewhat ironic,” Lopez said. “My wife and I had been talking about it four to six weeks earlier. At that point, it was some prospective, ‘In the next few years let’s give some thought to it.’ About a month later, the vacancy came up.”

The City Council chose Lopez unanimously last month from a pool of 15 applicants that included Ibsen’s preferred stand-in, Jordan Rash.

Council members said they picked Lopez – who works for the Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine – partly because he understands the issues facing Tacoma residents who commute.

Lopez and his wife first moved to Seattle after he left the Navy. But they said city just didn’t feel like home. They moved to Olympia, near where Evelyn now works for the state Attorney General’s Office. That didn’t feel right, either.

The duo found themselves driving to Tacoma almost every weekend to go to the Pantages Theater, dine at restaurants and see movies. When they moved to Tacoma’s West End 15 years ago, something clicked.

“We are perfectly at home here in ways that we hadn’t been previously,” Lopez said.

Lopez previously served three years on the city’s Board of Ethics, which hears resident complaints against various high-level city employees and elected officials. Lopez currently serves on the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s Board of Directors, which just completed a search for a new conductor.

Until recently, it had been tough to be more involved in city issues, he said.

“I’m at a point where my schedule does have flexibility to allow these things, which is why we’ve been thinking about them in ways we haven’t been able to think about them before,” Lopez said.

His first City Council meeting is Tuesday. The following are excerpts from a couple of interviews with Lopez.

Question: What skills do you bring to the council?

Answer: I am an attorney. What I deal with at the firm are internal risk management issues. I am somebody who is used to working with people behind the scenes and also, at the same time, being the point person for certain issues. I’m used to working cooperatively with people, used to working in groups, and used to and comfortable with working with people in a consensus environment.

Q: I know during the City Council interview you said the city’s budget shortfall and the roads are very difficult to solve, but I’m curious if you have any suggestions or potential solutions at this point?

A: No specific suggestions right now. I think it’s going to be touching base with the people on the council and getting some sense of where the issue is, how it’s developed so far. The shortfall in the general fund is very significant, and it’s really something that’s going to have to be dealt with before other agenda items, realistically, can move forward.

Q: What agenda items are you referring to specifically?

A: I’m sure everyone has their own pet projects. Given that shortfall, it’s going to be difficult to fund even basic existing services. How you move forward with new proposals and new programs is difficult to see without a solution to the shortfall.

Q: Is there anything in particular you’re interested in accomplishing while on the City Council?

A: What I’m interested in is getting involved in some of the local issues that have been coming up lately. I’m sure you’re aware with some of issues with the Weyerhaeuser mansion and the event planners who have been renting it. The 28 Proctor development (a proposed apartment and retail development in the Proctor District) is of great interest to people here. The West Slope conservation district (a vehicle for historic preservation) will probably come up this year.

But there are also issues that are of wider city interest. This is charter-review year, so there will be proposals coming out of the Charter Review Commission, probably around May. I think there’s a general expectation that despite the failure of Proposition 1, street repair will continue to be an issue for the city, and what can we do within existing limitations.

Q: How do you think Tacoma can help alleviate that rough commute between Tacoma and Seattle?

A: It’s more than just a city issue, that’s a local transit district — it’s a Sound Transit issue. It’s Pierce Transit, it’s Metro in King County. It’s one of those things where no matter what we’ve done in the last 10 years, it always seems as if the gains are rather short-lived, and capacity swells up to swamp the system again.

The odd thing is it’s really in one sense a good problem to have. What it indicates is we’ve got more and more usage of mass transit because more and more people have gone back to work. It has created capacity issues, particularly on I-5 and particularly for bus commuters.

Right now there are some issues that are temporary in nature. The work in Seattle on the viaduct replacement, on the tunnel, has a lot of the old Route 99 traffic now taking the freeway. That’s been a significant source of delays, particularly, I find. On the way into the city, it is inevitably backed up once you hit Boeing Field.