City Council: throw the bum system out

All together now, are we excited about Seattle's election choices this year? No? Blame the way we organize city government.

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Seattle City Hall.

All together now, are we excited about Seattle's election choices this year? No? Blame the way we organize city government.

Observers of this year’s City Council races — apart from maybe the candidates and consultants — are nearly uniform in their view that this election has been rather boring. With the tunnel off the table and council candidates avoiding running either for or against the mayor, the campaign has a dilatory air about it, with candidates mouthing what they think are the right words in the right places. What would help make Council elections more meaningful, especially when it comes to growth and land use, is a dose of charter reform.

Generally, I am skeptical of election reform or reorganizing how Councils are organized. Usually people want to reform the election process when they lose elections, and their particular agenda hasn’t broken through. A recent local example of this sort of big change happened with the union that represents jail workers passed a change at the ballot that reduced the County Council from 13 members to 9.

Other efforts to change Council, like the CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council) effort of more than 40 years ago, have been slates. That reformist slate ended up electing three new Councilmembers, including a Republican, something unheard of in today’s Seattle. But recent efforts to construct a sustainability slate through Friends of Seattle came up empty, failing to persuade any candidates to jump into the fray.

This year should be a watershed year for the City Council, with five of nine seats up for re-election. That could be an opportunity to field a slate in opposition or for incumbents to band together behind a big issue, like land use reform. Land use is how the city can accommodate growth and even boost the economy. Instead, only two credible new candidates have emerged, Bobby Forch and Brad Meacham, who are running against Jean Godden and Bruce Harrell, respectively. Both candidates would make fine new council members (and full disclosure, I have endorsed Meacham), but their campaigns have tended toward being referendums on the job performance of the current council member rather than a referendum on issues like transit oriented development.

Several years ago I served on a panel to review the idea of district elections. The panel was created by the City Council and included advocates of district voting, proportional voting, undecided people, and, interestingly, Randy Revelle, who was part of the CHECC effort and later King County Executive.

The panel concluded that changing the system was rigging it to try and produce results that the electorate wasn’t delivering at the ballot box, and recommended keeping at large elections. I felt confident then, while helping write the recommendations, that if people wanted change they'd just vote for it.

But my mind has changed over the years, and I think we need to reset the way we elect the Council and the mayor, and how we organize their powers. The strong mayor system should produce greater results than it has over the years. While it’s true that Mayor Greg Nickels ran a very tight ship, even he struggled to reform the city’s stubborn tendency for excessive process when it comes to land use. Combining mayor and council could yield better results for land use planning.

And there is precedent for this in our region. In British Columbia, the Vancouver City Council has 11 members, out of which the mayor is chosen, and Portland has a similar system, but has only five members, including the mayor, on the council. Portland and Vancouver are often hailed as being far more progressive than Seattle on issues related to land use and sustainability. I think that’s less because of the make-up of their voters, and more about their system.

Why not start a review of the Seattle City Charter and consider several different models of electing council members? The City Charter can be amended by council after a vote of the people of the city. Also, voters can file a petition to amend the Charter, which would also go to a vote. But Council could launch an abbreviated version of a process like King County's Charter reviews and solicit ideas for changes from the public.

One idea: We could elect lots more council members, say around 50, in very small districts. The council could be more like the school board, not a professional body, and all the members would be elected at once to serve for a five-year period. The mayor’s job would be primarily to call the Council into session, sign or veto legislation, and dissolve the body for new elections.

This mostly volunteer parliamentary style system might yield more reform faster, because it would force debates between neighborhoods about growth and about the city’s future in a way that our current system can’t. Today, members are elected at large, which means their platforms can tend to be pablum. A council member from Roosevelt, for example, would be able to advocate for that neighborhood but would have to persuade other council members from other areas that Roosevelt is “taking enough growth” with proposed upzones for light rail.

Such a system would mean fewer elections with higher stakes and more debate. Our current system tends to reward candidates who run toward broad and inchoate issue areas like transportation rather than specific and real issues like road diets. It would be more better to have the road diet concept — reducing lanes for safety and effective travel for cars, bikes, and buses — debated thoroughly and a conclusion reached for the whole city. Road diets today are debated neighborhood by neighborhood, a grinding process for transportation planners and advocates.

You would think that today's large, citywide elections for council members should produce, every couple years, substantive debate on critical issues. Instead, we get lots of nice people who try to say the right things and raise lots of money. Ironically, to get bigger issues decided for the whole city, it might be better to give more voice to smaller parts of the city and longer spaces between elections. The tunnel referendum proved that Seattle could move beyond process and reach clear decisions when the stakes are high enough.


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