Best of 2011: Seattle elections: still too much bland leading the bland

That most incumbents deserve reelection and are doing fairly well does not eliminate the need for important structural changes.

Crosscut archive image.

Seattle City Hall.

That most incumbents deserve reelection and are doing fairly well does not eliminate the need for important structural changes.

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we revisit coverage about City Politics. This story, by Crosscut writer Ted Van Dyk, first appeared October 23, 2011.

The candidates on our Nov. 8 election ballots are in general a cut above those on our last ballots.  The quality of our governance has improved over the past two years, in part because the Seattle City Council has been willing to question or oppose initiatives of a  sometimes erratic Mayor Mike McGinn, who is not on the ballot until 2013.
The Seattle City Council is not the pliant doormat it often was in Greg Nickels' years as mayor.  The Seattle School Board no longer contains grandstanders not primarily focused on the quality of classroom education.  The Seattle Port Commission isn't the rubber stamp it once was for a freewheeling director and staff. Here's how I'm voting in these races. 

The Seattle City Council:  I am voting for incumbents Bruce Harrell, Tom Rasmussen, and Tim Burgess.  I am undecided between incumbents Jean Godden and Sally Clark and their challengers Bobby Forch and Dian Ferguson, respectively.  I believe Forch and Ferguson would bring fresh energy and balance to the council.  Godden and Clark clearly love their city but often reflect the go-along, get-along mentality of prior councils.  Godden, a longtime Seattle journalist, enjoys close-to-beloved status in the city.  My vote on those two races will be a last-minute decision.

The Seattle School Board:  I am voting for the incumbents on the ballot — Peter Maier, Sherry Carr,  Harium Martin-Morris, and Steve Sundquist — with the hope that they will run a tighter ship in their upcoming terms.  All are honest people dedicated to public education.  But the financial scandals unearthed by the state Auditor, the expensive closure and reopening of schools, the acceptance of a goofy math curriculum, and sometimes slack oversight of administrators cannot be repeated.  

The Port Commission:  My votes go to Bill Bryant and Gael Tarleton, both of whom have provided good oversight and management
during a period of transition for port properties.  Questions concerning staff integrity and procedures have disappeared.

All of these institutions require changes unrelated to the elected officials filling them at any given time.

The Seattle City Council would be far more effective if its members were elected by district rather than at-large.  All but a handful of major American cities elect council members by district.  There is a reason.  District-elected members press the interests and viewpoints of their districts because district voters elect or reject them. Members elected at large often respond too greatly to those with downtown money and power.

The theory behind at-large councils is that their members will  put the city's general interest above what might be the parochial interests of neighborhoods or council districts.  We have found here, however, that an at-large-elected council can be uninterested in matters such as road and sidewalk repair in Ballard or West Seattle or provision of better bus service or public safety in outlying neighborhoods.   Recent Seattle councils have sometimes voted as if all their members lived north of Pioneer Square and south of the Ship Canal.  We need a city council elected by district for the same reason that federal and state legislators are elected by district.

Both the Port Commission and School Board members should receive compensation enabling them to spend more time with those responsibilities.  Port commissioners receive almost nothing; school-board members serve as volunteers. That limits the pool of
candidates for those offices to those who earn a living elsewhere.  It also means that persons holding these positions are subject to conflicts of interest. Their livelihoods or affiliations may relate to port or school business.   Or, in a worst case, they could be susceptible to payments from entities doing business with the port or schools.  We need independent people in these positions who are fairly paid for the time they devote to them. 
After nearly 11 years back home in Seattle, the greatest fault I find with our governance is that a "Seattle Nice" climate can breed complacency and, even worse, passive acceptance of bad public policies and decisions. We do lack critical faculties locally. Proposals sponsored by important interest groups or so-called leading citizens should be examined and challenged more than they are. Collegiality and goodwill often are valued over intelligent review of options and alternatives.  

"We should be together on this," is a phrase often heard locally.  Why?   That is the way mistakes get made.  Representative governance only works if we view skeptically matters that may involve many millions in taxpayer money and the interests of many thousands of the city's citizens.  

In transportation alone, the result of Seattle Nice can be seen. We dodged a bullet when a Monorail system finally was rejected.  It never made any sense but it almost happened because the idea seemed cool, even if it did not meet even the most elemental  cost-effectiveness standards.  We bought into a hugely cost-ineffective Sound Transit light rail system without asking the same questions and, now, appear on the verge of doing the same with a streetcar system which might be cute but which would carry too few passengers for far too much money. 
In Seattle, the bland too often have led the bland, and not always done it well.  We've done better over the past couple years, but we can do better still.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of