The NHL Seattle group has hired outgoing city councilmember Rob Johnson to assist on transportation issues once his term expires later this year. Johnson has recused himself from participating in any arena-related issues while serving out his term.
Outgoing Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson said he took all necessary steps to prevent any conflict of interest in accepting a full-time NHL Seattle position as a transportation advisor.
Johnson made public Friday the fact he’ll join the NHL group after his term expires Dec. 31. He said the hockey group approached him shortly after he’d announced in early November that he wouldn’t seek re-election and that he told the city’s ethics and elections office about the offer even before accepting. After joining the council in 2016, Johnson participated in several votes on both a Sodo District arena proposal as well as a current deal that will see the Los Angeles-based Oak View Group spend $850 million to renovate KeyArena for an NHL team expected to start play in October 2021.
“For me, the conversation around this position didn’t happen until after we had finished all of the contractual and transactional relationships that we had developed over the course of 2018 with the Oak View folks,” Johnson said. “It didn’t happen until after I had announced that I wasn’t running for re-election.
“So I was approached by them … they had heard good things about me from other folks and had certainly had some experience working with me on both the original lease agreement and then the transactional documents. I’d like to think that I made a pretty good impression and so they said, ‘We know that you’re not running. We would love to have you consider coming to help fix our transportation challenges.’ And that was where the conversation really got started in earnest.”
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Johnson said he had “a cup of tea” with Wayne Barnett, executive director of the city’s ethics and elections commission once talks with NHL Seattle progressed to a more formal discussion around a job and what it would entail. He said Barnett recommended he cease any briefings on arena or NHL topics and that they revisit the matter once he had a signed deal.
It was at that point, he said, that a decision was made to “be transparent not only with my colleagues but with the general public about this position that I’ve accepted.”
NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said that Johnson brings a wealth of knowledge to the company, starting with his master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA and having helped to run numerous city and county boards dealing with transportation issues.
“We’re excited to have his expertise,’’ Leiweke said, adding that the hiring represents “a statement of our commitment to brilliant transportation service and solutions.’’
Leiweke corroborated that his group approached Johnson several weeks back after he’d announced he wouldn’t run again. Johnson wound up recusing himself last month from a technical vote on the Oak View Group’s upcoming KeyArena renovation and will not participate in further arena legislation discussions while he fulfills his term.
Though Johnson is technically working for NHL Seattle and not OVG, the closeness of those two companies — Leiweke’s older brother Tim co-founded OVG and serves as its CEO — made it necessary for him to bow out of any further participation regarding arena discussions.
City conflict of interest guidelines don’t prevent council members from having an elected job one day and joining a private business entity the next. But Johnson will be prohibited from having any contact with city officials on any NHL or arena matters for at least a year and cannot assist or lobby on behalf of his new employer for two years.
Johnson currently chairs the city’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee and is vice chair of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee. He also serves on the Sound Transit board of directors, chairs the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Transportation Policy board and is a member of the Growth Management Planning Council of King County.
“I’m a transportation planner by training,” Johnson said. “So I think for me, I’m really excited about this because it allows me to use a lot of my technical skills to really help think about how we get people to and from the arena using a whole lot of different options. It’s going to really help.”
He feels his decision to work for NHL Seattle is consistent with his approach to sports issues during and preceding his time in office.
“First and foremost, I’m a sports fan,’’ Johnson said. “I was very clear about that when I was running.’’
In 2016, Johnson cast a “Yes’’ vote to approve selling a street to entrepreneur Chris Hansen so a new arena could be built in the city’s Sodo District. The vote failed by a 5-4 margin, paving the way for the city to later seek bids on a private renovation of KeyArena — resulting in the current $850 million renovation undertaken by Los Angeles-based OVG.
Johnson was one of the council members that voted unanimously last fall to finalize approving that renovation. Prior, he’d voted to approve a Memorandum of Understanding with OVG concerning details of the project’s financing.
But he also, in June 2017, pushed for the city to force OVG to commit to a dollar figure amount that it was willing to spend on improving transportation infrastructure. OVG three months later committed $40 million to a transportation fund.
“I feel like I’ve got a pretty strong legislative track record of voting in favor of the construction of stadiums,” Johnson said. “And in one case, I was in the minority and then the next case was in the majority.”