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Cozy no more: Districts could end tranquil era for City Council

Some among Seattle's merry band of local lawmakers worry that district elections could override citywide concerns and cause rifts.
The current Seattle City Council.

The current Seattle City Council. Seattle.gov

The collegiality that has defined the Seattle City Council in recent years could be rattled by the passage of a ballot initiative that calls for some of the city’s legislators to be elected in district rather than citywide races.

The initiative, Charter Amendment 19, is slated to go into effect in 2015. During that election cycle, all nine council seats will be up for grabs, seven in district races and two in citywide “at-large” contests. Voters across Seattle currently elect all nine councilmembers. The city electorate showed strong approval for Charter Amendment 19, with more than 65 percent of ballots counted so far in favor of the initiative.

The new election system creates a near-term rub for six councilmembers that currently share districts. These councilmembers will have to decide whether to compete against colleagues in district races, run for an at-large seat, or retire. While they don’t need to officially make this choice until mid-May 2015 — when declarations of candidacy are due with King County Elections — some of the members have already begun signaling which type of seat they would prefer.

Voters in this year's election may have tossed the council another curveball in addition to the districts initiative. The ongoing vote count suggests that Socialist candidate Kshama Sawant could unseat Richard Conlin, one of the council’s longest serving members. The four-term councilman's comfy 7.5 percentage point lead on election night steadily eroded as King County Elections processed late-arriving ballots last week. And by last Friday the race was a squeaker, with Conlin leading by slightly less than 1 percentage point, with an advantage of just 1,237 votes.

Some councilmembers believe that once the new election system is in place, neighborhood politics will undermine citywide priorities and reduce cooperation within the council.

“One of my concerns is that we fragment our city, that the lines of poverty become clearer and more distinct and we stop thinking about regional solutions,” said Bruce Harrell, who shares the new District Two in southeast Seattle with Council President Sally Clark.

“I think turf wars become inevitable,” he said. “I don’t think the council will work as unified as it currently does.”

Tim Burgess, who shares District Seven with Sally Bagshaw, agreed. “I think it will be easy for councilmembers to focus on their district and to potentially lose sight of the needs of the city as a whole,” Burgess said. “Now hopefully that won’t happen, but it will be really tempting.”

The councilmembers who spoke about their future campaign plans emphasized that the first round of district elections is a long way off, and couched answers about how they would run with some uncertainty. But with only two at-large positions available, at least one of the three district-sharing pairs will need to square off in 2015 — barring a retirement or a member moving to the currently unrepresented District Five in north Seattle.

Nick Licata, who shares District Six with Mike O’Brien, said the vibe between council mates could change if they were suddenly competing for the same seat. “If you have two councilmembers, you know, and I’m running for your job, there’s going to be a little tension there,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine how it’s not going to impact attitude a little bit.”

Harrell and Burgess recently competed on the campaign trail, when they both ran in this year’s mayoral primary. Harrell was among the seven candidates beat out by mayor-elect Ed Murray and Mayor Mike McGinn. Burgess bowed out before the end of the race. Asked whether it would be uncomfortable competing against a colleague to keep his council seat, Harrell said, “It would be awkward I suppose, but this is politics, that’s nature of the business.”

Jokingly, Licata said of O’Brien: “I should ask him who’s going to move.” In seriousness, Licata said he’s inclined to run at-large. “I like Mike,” he said. “I wouldn’t run against someone who has done a good job; that doesn’t seem right.”


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Nov 11, 10:56 a.m. Inappropriate

"Some councilmembers believe that once the new election system is in place, neighborhood politics will undermine citywide priorities and reduce cooperation within the council."

Having some differences of opinion about what is best for the city ("reduced cooperation") is not an inherently bad thing. It certainly can't be any worse than the current council culture that reflects little consideration of the interests of communities beyond downtown (and the East Side which contributes as much or more to councilmembers' campaigns than any single Seattle district).

Some friction and debate will be good; hopefully councilmembers will have to publicly defend their positions on major issues as opposed to the current system of closed door second (and seventh) floor deal cutting before all-too-common 9-0 votes. The more debate on and daylighting of major policy decisions affecting the entire city (and region), the better.

louploup

Posted Mon, Nov 11, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

"“I think turf wars become inevitable,” he said. “I don’t think the council will work as unified as it currently does.”"

I certainly hope he's right.

Hopefully, District Elections will stop the current situation where a ridiculous amount of tax revenue is spent in the downtown/SLU area and other neighborhoods will get their fair share of spending. For just one current example, look at the proposed "Downtown Connector" streetcar. Probably well over $100 million would be spent on an utterly unnecessary streetcar in downtown, while roads and sidewalks all over other Seattle neighborhoods go neglected. This is the sort of stupidity that got people to vote for District Elections.

Lincoln

Posted Mon, Nov 11, 3:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, I'm a strong supporter of district elections, and I hope it will put an end to the GroupThink that dominates the current council. Disagreements on policy are to be cherished in democratic culture! They are not something to be avoided or covered up. My God, let's have some intelligent debate on council once in a while. Watching them on cable TV now is like watching paint dry; totally mind-numbing.

Now regarding the Downtown Connector streetcar project, don't be so quick to dismiss it. What it does is connect two fragment streetcar lines together and make a workable whole out of them. It links the South Lake Union line with the First Hill Streetcar via First Avenue.

By interlining the two segments, it makes a pretty useful line out of them. And it does so without having to add yet another operations and maintenance facility, like had to be done for the two existing route fragments.

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 9:04 p.m. Inappropriate

No council should work as "unified" as this one. That is not representation of the will of the people. Electeds run on a platform that "I will represent your interests".

Instead they turn into group think morons.

Posted Mon, Nov 11, 2:52 p.m. Inappropriate

From the current city council member's post election comments as well as many commentators in the press, I think they miss the "sense of the voters" on this one. Having done a fair amount of neighborhood work, push back against some city agency efforts, and trying to meet with City Council members (one in particular whose staff never showed up for a scheduled meeting that took dozens of emails to set up, we never received an apology or offer to follow up) the current City Council remains woefully out of touch with constituents frustrations. From being ignored on the Roosevelt rezone, overly densified and the failed rain gardens in Ballard, the stealth rezone in Interbay, the new basketball arena, transit oriented development without parking in the SE, the 520 Westside....while the city council frets more about phone directories and plastic bags. The current members are in an echo chamber of staff and themselves. My sense is the district vote, which was overwhelming, was hopefully a wake-up call to the current members. It shouldn't be "negotiating" who is going to run for what position, but rather, Holy Cow, how can we connect with the constituents we have so long ignored or condescended to while we listened only to each other.

KAM

Posted Mon, Nov 11, 3:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Exactly. A few days ago I predicted that Burgess and Bagshaw would cut a deal on who runs for at-large and who for District 7. Now it's out in the open: “We’ve been talking about who wants to do what."

Both Burgess and Bagshaw have been vocally opposed to district elections; Bagshaw even did an email to supporters asking them to vote no on Charter 19. Why should voters seriously consider either of them in 2015?

louploup

Posted Mon, Nov 11, 4:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Seriously, if I were any of these candidates I would not glibly think they are going to win their districts or even the two at large seats. O'Brien and Licata should start attending events in their districts, be seen at meetings in Ballard over crime, storm water issues, parking, small apartments. Same thing for all of them...Joni Balter said when she ran into two council members on election night (one can surmise who they are by her comment) they looked stunned that this initiative won. That same night Councilmember Bagshaw told the press she thought this was a horrible idea regurgitating all the arguments about Balkanizing etc. Sure hasn't done that in all the major cities (NY, SF, LA...). It's more about wanting a Councilmember who shows up, listens, and represents their constituents not someone who mails their "concern in" with an flavor of the month email after a constituent has taken time to voice a concern. And if I were some neighborhood activists I would begin my campaign now...start showing up at all the events these current 9 don't think they need to attend, listen to concerns, learn what is going on...talk with the one lot per home folks, the smart growth folks (opposites sides of that issue), folks from Sightline and the nascent "too much density" folks, learn where the potholes are, the traffic snarls, the crime, the park problems.

KAM

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 9:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Great post.

Posted Mon, Nov 11, 4:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Why should Ballard give Licata and O'Brien another chance when they were so stunned with the passage of district elections. Doesn't that tell you how out of touch they are with the voters in District 6? The only thing these two have done for Ballard is bring more homeless into the neighborhood -- Mike O'Brien with his car campers and Licata who wants to support all the people that move from out of state to Freeattle for services -- oh, that's right Nick -- they came for jobs didn't they?

Nick and Mike do have the religious on their side -- one reason for the increase in homeless in Ballard -- but as I've tried to point out to you two -- very few of the religious that support what you are doing in Ballard don't live in District 6.

Norge

Posted Mon, Nov 11, 6:55 p.m. Inappropriate

None live in the 5th, so, having council members fight over who would finally represent us just isn't a problem.
Gosh, what a problem to have, tragic.

Mr Baker

Posted Mon, Nov 11, 10:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Would a council elected by district have have saddled the city with an aesthetically beautiful but functionally next-to-useless downtown library while the branch libraries where the citizens go remain overcrowded and under-resourced?

WSDW

Posted Tue, Nov 12, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Your hopes for district elections being a panacea for the city's woes are a bit premature. Now that we've adopted the electoral model that's been in place in so many other large cities--both winners and losers alike--, we can only wait and see what this roll of the dice will bring...

Posted Tue, Nov 12, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

"The collegiality that has defined the Seattle City Council in recent years could be rattled by the passage of a ballot initiative that calls for some of the city’s legislators to be elected in district rather than citywide races."

I certainly hope so.

nwcitizen

Posted Tue, Nov 12, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

I hope that anyone distrustful of too much 'collegiality' on the City Council will have cast their votes for Kshama Sawant. Her presence on the Council would be guaranteed to bring disruption, while the effects of the new electoral system are still unclear. And if she wins, please note that it was under the old rules that supposedly only favor the election of bland, go-along-get-along types. (Yeah, right..!)

Posted Tue, Nov 12, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Since Ms What's her name spent $233,000 to support the Council Member districting, let's see how this works out. There will be 2 "roving " council members for the whole city. Are they going to turn out as "referees" in the districts ?

North Beacon Hill will apparently have 3 council persons ? Beacon Hill has seemed to get squeezed out when opportunities come along. if Beacon hill gets more equality in City decisions remains to be seen.
I voted against districting of Council Members. If it doesn't work out ,we can blame Ms. $233,000 ! !

Leonard(Lenny)Larson, No. Beacon Hill

Lenny

Posted Tue, Nov 12, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't want a collegial city council. I want a council in which neighborhoods are represented, and where neighborhoods can form ad hoc voting blocs to oppose certain projects that always seem to get dumped in Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill, Aurora or Lake City. Every neighborhood should have a voice on the city council.

talisker

Posted Tue, Nov 12, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

If folks are so much against collegiality in City Hall, why did they dump McGinn? I thought his big 'crime' was his go-alone attitude and unwillingness to play nice with the Council..!

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

It's called democracy and it's a messy process. Voters recognized this and voted to have representation by district. Collegiality is white bread lame and messy is whole grain good.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 9:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Harrell and Clark are the first two to go. Vote them out. Representation by district is the only way to go, messy or not.

Posted Wed, Nov 13, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Great example happened tonight. Meeting in Sunset Hill area of Ballard about crime. Three police officers, lots of neighbors, no Licata or O'Brien, who live in this district. This is an important issue, it would have been good for our "city representatives" to listen to concerns, listen to what the police tell us to do, etc.

For those of you who think this was a "conservative issue," I would ask how come over 65% of the city voted for it?

KAM

Posted Thu, Nov 14, 4:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Hear, hear. Anyone thinking of running in a new city council district should be attending such community meetings, especially if they are an incumbent. Unfortunately, under the current regime, they only attend when they are invited to be the star attraction. They have no interest in attending to be mere participants in a community conversation.

Personally, in 2015, I will not support any candidate for city council who opposed district elections. Makes no sense to elect someone to a position they wished didn't exist.

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