Council districts: A radical move that threatens good government

Guest Opinion: There are better solutions for Seattle than the risky Charter Amendment 19.
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Seattle City Council.

Guest Opinion: There are better solutions for Seattle than the risky Charter Amendment 19.

Charter Amendment 19 would make a radical change in how the City Council is elected — from nine at-large council members to two at-large members and seven members who are elected by district.  Seattle voters defeated a proposed conversion to districts in 1975,1995 and 2003 — for very good reasons. 

As in 2003, district elections are on the ballot now only because one commercial property owner, who has been angry about Seattle spending priorities for the last 30 years, has contributed more than $230,000 or over 90 percent of the “Seattle Districts Now” budget.

Before we make such a radical change, we need to ask ourselves, what is good about the system we have? If we think something is wrong, how will district elections fix it? And what will be the unintended consequences of such a change?

Consider the strengths of at-large elections:

  • If policies that affect the whole city and region are your primary concern, it should be clear that our nine at-large council members are more likely to consider and balance the needs of the city as a whole, not just favor one district. Seattle’s policies on affordable housing, human services, city support for schools, at-risk youth, zoning, parks and libraries have been more progressive than most cities. In contrast, the political incentives inherent in district elections favor  “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” deal-making.   There is no reason to believe that district elections will be as progressive as current city policies in these areas.
  • At-large council members also consider themselves responsible for regional issues that have a major impact on the whole city and the values we care about. Decisions on transportation, transit, water supply, water and air quality, preservation of farms and forests, economic development and fair regional allocation of affordable housing are made in regional forums where Seattle is one of numerous participants. Further, because they can speak for the whole city, at-large council members voices carry greater weight in these forums.
  • Today all council members are accountable to every neighborhood.  At-large elections give you the ability to hold every council member accountable for what you care about.

Proponents of district elections make two main claims.

First, there is accountability: In the Voters Pamphlet, proponents claim that district elections will “ensure” that your neighborhood gets its share of city resources because there will be one council member who is accountable just to your district. But six council members will no longer be accountable to you at all, and two at-large members will perceive their role as attending to citywide and regional issues.

Further, the chances are good that your one council member may be on the wrong committee, or he or she may be ineffective or may not agree with you. In those cases where do you turn? Today the chair of every committee and all members are politically accountable to you. In an at-large system all nine council members will be seeking your votes over four years. In the proposed hybrid district system, in four years you would have only your one district incumbent and two at-large incumbents seeking your votes.

Finally, where will “your neighborhood’s fair share of city resources” come from? Other neighborhoods? Social services?  Parks?  Police? Higher taxes?  

Second, the proponents talk abut special interest campaign money. District proponents are correct that district elections would cost less than citywide elections. But with district elections, special interest money will still have the same ability go wherever it needs to go to influence elections and gain access. Special interest money will still be electing and influencing your council member. Check out county council and legislative campaign contributions.

If campaign money is your concern (and it should be), there is a far better proposal on the November ballot — Proposition 1, the public funding of campaigns.

Public Funding will reduce the amount of private contributions that a candidate must raise for citywide campaigns to as little as $35,000 compared to $80,000 for a competitive district campaign. It will eliminate the need for all candidates — including incumbents — to seek special interest dollars.

If electing more challengers is your concern, there is no evidence that challengers in district campaigns are more likely to unseat incumbents because district elections cost less. More city council incumbents than King County incumbents have been defeated over the last 30 years. In the last four elections, half of county council incumbents have run totally unopposed. Incumbents win 90-plus percent of the time regardless of the system.

Finally, today the best potential challenger can pick the weakest incumbent who is up for re-election; in a district system a good challenger will usually have to wait years for the entrenched incumbent to retire.

A balanced approach to the needs of the whole city, more effective representation of the city on regional issues, political accountability of every council member to every neighborhood, public funding of city campaign: All are reasons to vote no on Seattle Charter Amendment 19.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Jim Street

Jim Street was a Seattle City Council member from 1983 to 1995 and later a Superior Court judge. The first bill that he sponsored as a council member was for public funding of city campaigns.