A council misguided: The futility of property tax-financed city elections

Commentary: The Seattle City Council is considering a proposal to finance city elections with property taxes. There's a better option.
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The current Seattle City Council.

Commentary: The Seattle City Council is considering a proposal to finance city elections with property taxes. There's a better option.

The proposal to assess a property tax to finance city council election campaigns is, at best, painfully cynical; at worst, absurd. 

Under the proposal, any candidate wanting taxpayer money must receive contributions of $10 or more from at least 600 contributors. The city would provide a 6 to 1 match in the primary and the general. Just $30,000 in individual contributions would yield $180,000 in taxpayer money. The full details of the proposal are here.

It seems like a great deal without much work. Why spend the summer dialing for dollars, when you just take a check from the city treasurer, financed by property owners, and be done with it? And we’re told by proponent council members that publicly-financed elections will attract more candidates to seek election to the council.

Their biases and motivation are worth serious consideration, though: Why would city council members want to encourage people to take away their jobs? Publicly-financed campaigns would benefit incumbent city council members far more than a start-up candidate: Which would more likely have easy access to 600 contributors?

And then there is the added complexity this will bring to campaigns. Each new campaign finance reform requires more sophisticated record keeping and the need for consultants who understand the ins and outs of the system. When my dad first ran for mayor in the seventies, his next door neighbor was his treasurer. Now, running for election requires hiring fundraisers, consultants and a treasurer, just to make sure you don’t get in trouble.

Further, it’s very surprising that taxpayer-financed campaigns have even made it to the top of the council’s priorities. I’ve seen council members pestered by constituents about potholes, sidewalks, barking dogs and buses that never show up, but I have never heard of a council member being hounded by citizens demanding they be taxed to pay for council campaigns. 

The idea of only hitting up property owners to pay for their campaigns is reminiscent of a time when only property owners were entitled to vote. I’m sure we’re not going back there.   

If the city council really wants to make its membership more reflective of the citizenry – and encourage more participation – they should take another route: A move to district elections for council positions. Districts would mean council members would be held more accountable to their constituents, and there would be no need to complicate things with matching fund schemes.   

As a 2009 city council candidate, I was discouraged by how detached campaigns are from the process of educating candidates and voters about the issues. Most of a candidate’s time is spent fundraising, doing endorsement interviews with interest groups and filling out endless questionnaires. The council’s proposed changes would address none of these issues.

District elections though would make it easier for grassroots candidates to do what the grassroots is all about — knocking on doors and getting to know the people they represent.

Some of the most in-tune elected officials are state representatives, who constantly doorbell and talk to their constituents face-to-face; a practice that strengthens the bond between candidates and constituents and is healthy for democracy. The late Scott White, a legislator and then State Senator, was a great example of someone totally committed to this kind of grassroots work. In the 46th district, he seemed to be everywhere, talking to people and learning what they cared about. In a citywide election, he would have been limited to interest groups with specific needs and demands that may or may not have been in tune with the general population.

I am not saying that our current councilmembers are somehow beholden to special interests or corrupted by the system. We’re fortunate that they are well-intentioned and highly ethical individuals. But the folks with a vested interest in holding on to their seats should not be the ones making the rules for how one gets elected. And, unfortunately, making publicly-financed campaigns a priority shows they may be out of step with their constituents.

Those who doubt this view should go knock on some doors. That’s not how you get elected to the Seattle City Council, but it should be.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.