New survey offers tips for implementing Seattle's new city council districts

The city auditor studied other cities with district and hybrid council systems. The results provide practical advice for how to make the new district system work.
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City Council elections are approaching

The city auditor studied other cities with district and hybrid council systems. The results provide practical advice for how to make the new district system work.

All members of the Seattle City Council will be up for re-election in 2015 as the city implements its new hybrid system of district and at-large council seats. The current nine at-large council seats will be cut to two, and seven seats will be elected to represent seven new council districts.

Those elections are effectively underway; jockeying has already begun as incumbents decide whether to run at-large, for the district in which they live, or just bow out.

But there are still details of the implementation of districts to be worked out. That process is being spearheaded by city council president Tim Burgess, chair of the Education and Governance committee, along with a working group representing various city departments. One early step is to find out what other cities do, especially cities that elect members by district or have hybrid systems like Seattle's new one.

City Auditor David G. Jones was tasked with surveying other metro systems to answer questions such as do district council members have offices in their districts? Is there any difference in the duties of at-large council members and district ones? Is there any requirement that boards and commissions have a district representative?

Seattle last had a district council system, and for a time a bicameral, hybrid system, in the early 20th century, so getting a handle on the current state-of-the-art around the country is a sensible way to prepare.

In early April, Jones issued the results of his survey in a memo to Burgess. The survey covers Austin, Boston, Denver, Jacksonville, FL, Oakland and San Francisco. All of those cities elect council members by district. Four of them also seat at-large city council members, ranging from five in Jacksonville to one in Oakland.

The questions and the answers shed light on the wonky details that Burgess and Seattle city government are wondering about and also on the experience of other cities. There are no apples-to-apples comparisons, everybody does things a little differently. But some rules of thumb come through loud on clear.

For example, none of the cities organizes or adopts city operating or capital budgets by district. While district priorities might influence budgets, they are not overtly Balkanized in their structure.

Of the cities with a central policy staff that works for the council, Seattle seems to be the most generously staffed: 17 staffers to 9 council members (or 1.88 staffers apiece). Other cities get by with much less help: Boston is at .85 staffers per council member, Denver .46 and Jacksonville .21. San Francisco contracts out requested policy research and budget analysis, at a cost of about $2 million. None of the cities studied assigns central staff by district.

All the cities organize council committees by issue, rather than geography. Most boards and commissions do not require district representation, though in Oakland, as a practical matter where council members make board appointments, they tend to come from their respective districts.

Seattle's auditor asked if any of the district council members keeps an additional office in his or her district. In Denver, all council members, whether at large or district, have a single office. Their two at-large council members and four district council members have downtown offices while the remaining seven district council members have district offices. In Jacksonville, district offices are prohibited. In Boston, some council members maintain district offices but they are paid for with campaign funds. In San Francisco, everyone is housed downtown. In most cities district council members have one office, not two.

A number of the cities have a 3-1-1 hotline for constituent problems, and council members assign aides to handle them.

No city surveyed required the city council president to hold an at-large position.

In terms of the challenges of a district system, Denver praised it: "It seems to work well. We have two At-Large positions that bring a city-wide view to the debates, and all areas of the city have a direct representative. Very democratic." The only complaint is having to redraw the district boundaries every 10 years per the new U.S. Census, which is a built- in requirement of Seattle's districts charter amendment. In general, Denver seems happy with districts. Some constituents would like to dump the two at-large positions, but Denver officials defended the at-large positions, noting that the citywide perspective they bring was a positive.

San Francisco seems conflicted about districts. According to the survey, they switched from an at-large to a district model in 1977. In 1980 they went back to at-large. In 1996, voters decided to go back to districts starting in 2000. Theirs is not a hybrid system and they have 11 districts, four more than Seattle.

Jacksonville's response raised an issue that will be worth watching and anticipating: "The fundamental challenge is competition for limited resources among districts when district conditions and needs vary widely. There is continual debate over the proper way to allocate resources — by equal, fixed amounts per district or according to demonstrable need."

One can well imagine Seattle dealing with the push-pull between the needs of North End neighborhoods like District Five, which wants basic sidewalk infrastructure, and, say, the generally poorer South End's Second District, which has large infrastructure and social service needs.

An issue not raised in the report is what to call the districts. Seattle already has a system of 13 District Councils, and now it has seven Council Districts. While some have questioned the future of the District Councils, for the sake of clarity perhaps Seattle's new Council Districts should be called what we used to call them: Wards.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.