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New survey offers tips for implementing Seattle's new city council districts

The city auditor studied other cities with district and hybrid council systems. The results provide practical advice for how to make the new district system work.
Soon Seattle will elect its city council members by district. So, ah, how exactly is that going to work?

Soon Seattle will elect its city council members by district. So, ah, how exactly is that going to work? Credit: leff/Flickr

All members of the Seattle City Council will be up for re-election in 2015 as the city implements its new hybrid system of district and at-large council seats. The current nine at-large council seats will be cut to two, and seven seats will be elected to represent seven new council districts.

Those elections are effectively underway; jockeying has already begun as incumbents decide whether to run at-large, for the district in which they live, or just bow out.

But there are still details of the implementation of districts to be worked out. That process is being spearheaded by city council president Tim Burgess, chair of the Education and Governance committee, along with a working group representing various city departments. One early step is to find out what other cities do, especially cities that elect members by district or have hybrid systems like Seattle's new one.

City Auditor David G. Jones was tasked with surveying other metro systems to answer questions such as do district council members have offices in their districts? Is there any difference in the duties of at-large council members and district ones? Is there any requirement that boards and commissions have a district representative?

Seattle last had a district council system, and for a time a bicameral, hybrid system, in the early 20th century, so getting a handle on the current state-of-the-art around the country is a sensible way to prepare.

In early April, Jones issued the results of his survey in a memo to Burgess. The survey covers Austin, Boston, Denver, Jacksonville, FL, Oakland and San Francisco. All of those cities elect council members by district. Four of them also seat at-large city council members, ranging from five in Jacksonville to one in Oakland.

The questions and the answers shed light on the wonky details that Burgess and Seattle city government are wondering about and also on the experience of other cities. There are no apples-to-apples comparisons, everybody does things a little differently. But some rules of thumb come through loud on clear.

For example, none of the cities organizes or adopts city operating or capital budgets by district. While district priorities might influence budgets, they are not overtly Balkanized in their structure.

Of the cities with a central policy staff that works for the council, Seattle seems to be the most generously staffed: 17 staffers to 9 council members (or 1.88 staffers apiece). Other cities get by with much less help: Boston is at .85 staffers per council member, Denver .46 and Jacksonville .21. San Francisco contracts out requested policy research and budget analysis, at a cost of about $2 million. None of the cities studied assigns central staff by district.

All the cities organize council committees by issue, rather than geography. Most boards and commissions do not require district representation, though in Oakland, as a practical matter where council members make board appointments, they tend to come from their respective districts.

Seattle's auditor asked if any of the district council members keeps an additional office in his or her district. In Denver, all council members, whether at large or district, have a single office. Their two at-large council members and four district council members have downtown offices while the remaining seven district council members have district offices. In Jacksonville, district offices are prohibited. In Boston, some council members maintain district offices but they are paid for with campaign funds. In San Francisco, everyone is housed downtown. In most cities district council members have one office, not two.

A number of the cities have a 3-1-1 hotline for constituent problems, and council members assign aides to handle them.

No city surveyed required the city council president to hold an at-large position.

In terms of the challenges of a district system, Denver praised it: "It seems to work well. We have two At-Large positions that bring a city-wide view to the debates, and all areas of the city have a direct representative. Very democratic." The only complaint is having to redraw the district boundaries every 10 years per the new U.S. Census, which is a built- in requirement of Seattle's districts charter amendment. In general, Denver seems happy with districts. Some constituents would like to dump the two at-large positions, but Denver officials defended the at-large positions, noting that the citywide perspective they bring was a positive.

San Francisco seems conflicted about districts. According to the survey, they switched from an at-large to a district model in 1977. In 1980 they went back to at-large. In 1996, voters decided to go back to districts starting in 2000. Theirs is not a hybrid system and they have 11 districts, four more than Seattle.

Jacksonville's response raised an issue that will be worth watching and anticipating: "The fundamental challenge is competition for limited resources among districts when district conditions and needs vary widely. There is continual debate over the proper way to allocate resources — by equal, fixed amounts per district or according to demonstrable need."

One can well imagine Seattle dealing with the push-pull between the needs of North End neighborhoods like District Five, which wants basic sidewalk infrastructure, and, say, the generally poorer South End's Second District, which has large infrastructure and social service needs.

An issue not raised in the report is what to call the districts. Seattle already has a system of 13 District Councils, and now it has seven Council Districts. While some have questioned the future of the District Councils, for the sake of clarity perhaps Seattle's new Council Districts should be called what we used to call them: Wards.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 8:01 a.m. Inappropriate

I would like to know whether in the election process for the district positions in these other cities, any restrict district-only voting to the primaries but allow city-wide voting for the general election. That (along with a district residency requirement for district candidates) is what, in my opinion, would provide a truly 'hybrid' quality to the legislative branch of city government. It would not be as apt to lead to balkanization like the system we've adopted will do. (I see from the article that San Francisco has been willing to change its system when it's not meeting expectations; I hope we can be as flexible.)

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 2:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Of the c. 75 largest cities in U.S. (down to Henderson NV pop 257,000), only one uses a district primary, at-large in the general system, Tucson AZ. Seattle Districts Now considered that option and rejected it very early because it is contrary to one of the primary purposes of district council elections—making them more affordable and doable for non-insiders.

Re: SF, see my comment directly to Mossback

louploup

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 9:06 a.m. Inappropriate

I halfway wish they included Washington, DC, but understand why not. In addition to being a colony, the real money is in Federal payments in return for untaxed land, and the real power lies in the House District Committee.

However, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, written into the Home Rule Charter as a response to the gentrification effects of Washington DC Year 2000 plan and the National Capital Planning Commission, is instructive beyond any consideration of district representation. The differences between the DC ANCs and the Seattle CNC? The ANC is written into the City Constitution, thus having security, resources and access to city departments, and the commissioners are elected in real elections. It is not confused or clouded with business district groups, neighborhood groups or non-profit entities, although the commissioners definitely have a relationship, and some commissions have launched community building activities where there are gaps.

"The Advisory Neighborhood Commissions consider a wide range of policies and programs affecting their neighborhoods, including traffic, parking, recreation, street improvements, liquor licenses, zoning, economic development, police protection, sanitation and trash collection, and the District's annual budget.

In each of these areas, the intent of the ANC legislation is to ensure input from an advisory board that is made up of the residents of the neighborhoods that are directly affected by government action. The ANCs are the body of government with the closest official ties to the people in a neighborhood.

The ANCs present their positions and recommendations on issues to various District government agencies, the Executive Branch, and the Council. They also present testimony to independent agencies, boards, and commissions, usually under the rules of procedure specific to those entities. By law, the ANCs may also present their positions to Federal agencies."

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

I wonder if in addition to the 7+2 system we voted in, we also need term limits.

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

A districted City Council is no different than a districted state legislature or a districted Congress. The idea that budgets would be set solely by district is absurd.

I know that a lot of the NIMBYs are hoping that the districted Council will give them power over city decisions. They are going to be disappointed, just as they were in SF and every other city where district elections were adopted. What will happen is more people will be given a voice, especially the left and people of color. If anything this could become a nightmare for NIMBYs as younger people and those who support affordable housing are given power and representation.

junipero

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 2:41 p.m. Inappropriate

While some so-called urbanists like to call anyone who advocates for neighborhood empowerment "NIMBY" as if it's a dirty word, many of us who worked on Charter 19 did so explicitly to give more of a voice (and political power) to "younger people and those who support affordable housing." I am very pleased that Charter 19 got significantly more yes votes in precincts with younger voters and renters and more diversity.

Many of us who worked on Charter 19 are "especially of the left." (I've been a democratic socialist for decades.) We did not expect "power over city decisions." We view the city as an extension of all of us. You set up a false "us v them" dichotomy with "NIMBY v city." A more accurate power dichotomy is oligarchs (and their myrmidons in the professional class) v everyone else.

I don't know of anyone on the steering committee of Charter 19 who expected city budgets to be "set solely by district." We do expect there to be increased accountability and more geographic equity. How about sidewalks sometime this century in District 5? How about replacing the Magnolia Bridge in District 7 before it falls down? (Remember the South Park Bridge debacle?) Instead of pouring millions of public money into Vulcanland for a gigantic expanse of concrete boulevard.

So, not a nightmare at all. I'm not sure who you think that horrible "lot of NIMBYs" is. Can you name them? Remember, the auditor's survey questions came from inside the city bureaucracy, not Charter 19 supporters.

louploup

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 3:54 p.m. Inappropriate

With 65% of the vote, I doubt any stereotypes hold water. When I was out leafletting for the measure, most of the newer and younger residents were horrified that our council is not based on districts where they live. After the body language of not wanting to take a leaflet, my words would sink in 'Support electing your councilmember by district?' and I would get the double-take, 'You are saying they are NOT?!?' I'd ask if they are registered to vote, most were, and how long they had been here, most not very long.

At the same time, a lot of my friends who have been in Seattle even longer than I have were actively working against the measure.

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 5:28 p.m. Inappropriate

We had the same sense of the demographics; most recent arrivals (c. 20 years or less) were shocked that we didn't have districts for city council. Our take was that the older, (presumably) liberal crowd, often engaged through the Democratic district orginazations, felt that they already had sufficient "access." We easily got past 50% in endorsement votes (36th, 43rd), but had trouble getting the super majorities most/all districts require for that reason.

The overwhelming vote across all districts does make it difficult to parse statistical significance. However, some work has been done; I just put it at http://seattledistrictsnetwork.net/november-2013-election-analysis/

louploup

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

"Seattle's auditor asked if any of the district council members keeps an additional office in his or her district."

This reminded me that in days of yore an energetic, newly elected Councilmember actually set a time for myself (and others) to meet with her at a handy Service Center. Heaven forbid!

So I set about checking what happened to the Neighborhood Service Centers. So far: they either do not exist or they have been reduced to six—the unidentified red dots on the map here: http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/districts/ One less than the forthcoming seven Council districts.

I also discovered that DON now groups its 13 Neighborhood Districts into a set of three Regions: North, Central and South with sets of two or three Neighborhood District Coordinators serving all Neighborhood Districts in a Region. Now I wonder where those sets hang out and where those Regional phone numbers ring?

Will they ever finish Bruckner Boulevard?

afreeman

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 3:03 p.m. Inappropriate

"San Francisco seems conflicted about districts." Actually, the real "conflict" was between the downtown/development power regime and the rest of the populace. Districts came about in 1977 as a result of a concerted effort by a coalition of neighborhood activists, organized labor, minorities, and gays (who were coming into their own in the Castro). One of their aggressively progressive leaders was Harvey Milk; he wasn't just a gay leader, he was a very liberal politician.

The first election of a district council in S.F. was a truly significant shift to the left. First gay in a major city. First black woman. Civil rights lawyer single mom.

And you don't mention what happened next; Milk and liberal Mayor Moscone were assassinated by the right wing district council member Dan White. The oligarchs took advantage of the grief and disappointment and got district elections undone at the next election. It took the next 16 years for a progressive coalition to reform and pass district elections again.

louploup

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 5:27 p.m. Inappropriate

There are 13 neighborhood District Councils, not 12 as erroneously reported. It is not necessary that they be aligned with the 7 new City Council districts (wards).

Citizens approved the new 7+2 arrangement because they wanted representation from council members who were more knowledgeable and considerate of local issues. There were strong feelings among many citizens that our elected leaders and appointed department heads had become paternalistic and arrogant. The money required to run and win citywide elections seemed to increase the chasm between the electeds and the populace. The district system is an opportunity for more grassroots campaigning and more competitive races.

Veritas

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 5:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Veritas: Thanks. I knew that, but still wrote it wrong. Thanks for the correction.

LoupLoup: Thanks for the interesting background on SF districts.

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