Should Seattle politics devolve?

Here comes another attempt to have some city councilmembers elected by districts. It's starting to make more sense, as our urban neighborhoods become more beloved.
Crosscut archive image.

The Ballard bell tower will be draped in black to mark the 100th anniversary of the town's annexation by Seattle. (City of Seattle)

Here comes another attempt to have some city councilmembers elected by districts. It's starting to make more sense, as our urban neighborhoods become more beloved.

A new group called Action Seattle, with political roots in Southeast Seattle, is starting an initiative drive to make five of the Seattle City Council seats elected by district, leaving the other four to be elected citywide or at-large. The group would need to get 29,500 signatures by June 28, and the measure would then go on the November ballot.

Facebook politics may enable the drive, getting a late start, to gain enough signatures. Even though the last two efforts at a reform of council elections this way failed in 1995 and 2003, times may be a-changing enough for it to work this time. That's because the political dynamics of Seattle have been shifting away from citywide issues (which seem to take forever to happen) to sustainable neighborhood issues (and blogs). Another factor: the Greg Nickels approach has been not exactly pro-neighborhood, so a lot of bottled up political anger has developed.

A century ago, most big cities had elections by district or ward systems. The progressive reformers of the early 20th century preferred a municipal politics that took a broad, technocratic, above-logrolling view of city issues, and so instituted the citywide, at-large system. These middle class reformers also wanted to limit the power of ethnic groups. Very middle-class Seattle was one of the leaders of this kind of good-government reform. Other steps involved isolating the school system, libraries, and parks from grubby ward politics; and holding municipal elections in off-years (as we still do) so as not to have big turnouts (favoring unwashed voters) as happen in presidential years.

The result is a City Council (and school board) where a candidate has to have appeal across many boundaries — a tamer, more generic, less "selfish" kind of public servant who looks out for the public good, not for parochial interests. Minorities and off-beat types suffer in such a system. Only the most organized neighborhoods (Montlake, Phinney Ridge, Wallingford, Capitol Hill, Laurelhurst) can prevail in Nimby disputes and the like. Powerful interests (developers, downtown retail, sports teams, UW, hospitals, Boeing) set the agenda. For ordinary voters, City Hall comes to seem remote and bureauctratic, less concerned about ordinary issues (like snow removal).

One of the enduring ironies of Seattle politics is that you get elected by talking about how much you love the neighborhoods and want to do them justice, but you get reelected by catering to the well-funded, able-to-deliver large interests (definitely not those whiny neighborhood groups). A feast in Seattle politics is an issue that combines big labor, big business, downtown, big environmental groups, and some cultural sauce on top the dish. The downtown waterfront park is a classic illustration of this coalition, which is one reason Mayor Nickels has championed the project. The Seattle Commons in South Lake Union was an example of an earlier such coalition, in this case vetoed by the neighborhood populists in 1995.

Over time, three cases have developed in support of the by-district, hybrid City Council. One is greater racial diversity, an issue that is losing its salience as the black population declines in the city. Another is the strong-mayor argument, which means redefining the roles of city councilmembers from being surrogate mayors (the so-called 10-Mayor System), a formula for impasse, to one where the mayor is potent and the councilmembers are distracted by tending to their wards. This case is also losing salience as Mayor Nickels has pretty effectively marginalized the council in these past eight years.

The third argument is about rebuilding trust between voters and their government, by rescaling the large city into smaller districts, where you know your councilmember and expect her to respond at once. Some studies have found that a major appeal of suburban life (aside from safety and schools) is the smaller scale of the governments. Got a pothole in Kirkland? You know who to call and expect it to be fixed by next Tuesday. So why not give cities some of the same advantages, by decentralizing in this way?

Easier said than done. Only Portland, Oregon and St. Paul, Minnesota have really transferred decision-making power and funding down to the neighborhoods. And places that try it find that petty chieftains can get control of these rudimentary local councils and become impossible to dislodge. Nor is the King County Council, all elected by districts, exactly a shining example to emulate. (And note how none of the councilmembers up for reelection this year have any real opposition.)

Still, why not try? What people really like in Seattle is their neighborhood, not their city government. Seattle is an agglomeration of once-independent cities such as Ballard, and its school system anchored these neighborhood loyalties for decades. As a creative, incubator city, Seattle ought to stress its neighborhood vitality more than the expensive, generic downtown. Think of how Google is defining Fremont, or Amazon will dominate South Lake Union/Cascade. Doesn't it make sense to go with the flow of energy to individualized neighborhoods that people love, rather than clumsier, bloated municipalities?


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