Seattle City Council district politics come knocking

Looking ahead to 2015, there are early signs that the City Council's new district-based elections could pit neighbor against neighbor.
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Who should take the place of Sally Clark (in the brown suit, center left) on the current Seattle City Council.

Looking ahead to 2015, there are early signs that the City Council's new district-based elections could pit neighbor against neighbor.

As 2014 vote counting winds up, a big question for 2015 is how the city's new district system will change the way Seattle does business.

A century ago, districts — then called wards — were seen as part of the political problem. Seattle politics were deeply corrupt and the wards were seen as enabling dirty, "Hinky Dink" government — that is, Chicago-style politics.

The term was inspired by Michael "Hinky Dink" McKenna, a pol who controlled vice in Chicago's First Ward and became the poster-child for lousy urban politics. Seattle's First Ward was similar at that time, controlled by gambling and prostitution interests in the Tenderloin district below Yesler Way. Getting rid of wards was part of civic cleaning house.

But one era's reform became another era's need for change. We tossed districts in 1911 and fended off their return in 1914, yet by 2013 citizens were fed up with the at-large council system, believing it to be calcified and beholden to big funders. The change was an opportunity to shake things up, open the election process to grassroots candidates and pull electeds away from downtown interests and get them to focus on neighborhood ones.  So we’ve reinstated districts for the majority of council positions, but kept two, at-large citywide seats.

There's no question the new districts will have an influence on how the city works and how it allocates its resources. Some fear the return of the kind of pork-barrelism and horse trading that is the mark of parochial politics — not to mention the wicked ways of Olympia and Congress. Bill Stafford, civic dynamo, trade honcho, and deputy and advisor to various Seattle mayors, is one of those concerned with how district politics will impact the city budget and how levies for city projects like the library and public safety or Seattle Center are put together.

In an email he shared some of what's on his mind:

Some of the interesting questions to study during the first four or so years of implementation [of districts] will be the degree of geographic allocation versus budget allocation by need. Will the police for example be allocated differently or will crime priorities change? Will a council member from West Seattle have to deal with their neighborhood library or park and give a lower priority to Seattle Center, waterfront or the downtown library? How will the central business district fare as pressure will be to spend limited funds on neighborhoods? How will the human service programs get funded if the need is only in one district?"

Stafford is also concerned that levies may become like heavily laden Christmas trees decorated with baubles to please the districts at the expense of larger, city-wide perspectives. District reps may need more and tangible political rewards in return for their support and to placate constituents.

Stafford's advice is that city-watchers should follow the money. He expects the dynamic to evolve over at least a couple of election cycles.

With all of the City Council facing election in 2015 and currently working out the 2015-16 budget details, we already have a chance to look for signs of a shift.

One thing that suggests districts are already influencing how policymakers think about budgets: The city budget office has started tagging proposed capital improvement projects for 2015-20 with which district they are in, when applicable. Some projects are taking place in multiple districts, others, such as some of City Light's work, happen outside the city limits, others are truly citywide. But now you can scan and search through proposed capital spending and see what is going in your council district, or the other guy's. We already know that some districts have historically felt left out. The North End’s suburbanish 5th District is known for its lack of sidewalks, the South End’s Second District, the poorest, has complained of being chronically underserved.

A tiny sampling of projects proposed in the budget include pavement upgrades and poles for trolley wires (District 3), an expanded bus stop at Macy's on Pine Street (District 7), park improvements for waterfront access at a street end on 24th Ave. NW (District 6), solving sewage back-up problems in Broadview (District 5), upgrading Seattle Public Utilities' Operations Control Center on Airport Way (District 2), replacing the North End recycling center in Wallingford (District 4), and fire station seismic upgrades in Delridge (District 1).

None of these are out of the ordinary, but now we have the ability to sort them by district for a new metric measuring projects by political geography. This will also likely shape the way city staff defines and proposes projects as their location and distribution get increased scrutiny from council members and the public. I recently saw a map that some library supporters made to see how the branches were distributed throughout the city (surprisingly evenly, I thought). Expect to see more such exercises and analysis.

According to city budget boss Ben Noble, the decision to tag the districts in the capital budget came through an informal request from the city council. So far, only capital projects are included. Noble says his office has "not done an analysis of operational spending by district. Such an analysis would be difficult at best (spending is not generally "coded" geographically in our budget system) and potentially misleading in certain circumstances.  Services may be provided in particular location but designed to serve a larger geographic population."

Council president Tim Burgess has been looking into implementation of the district system and the auditor's office researched how similar cities with district or hybrid systems like Seattle's do it. (You can see the original report here, and my earlier story about it here.)

Burgess aide Nate Van Duzer says via email, "None of the cities we contacted allocated budget funds based on districts and we aren’t proposing to do that either, but one of them (Jacksonville) did track the allocation of funds for informational purposes and that seemed like it might be a useful exercise." Thus, the request to the budget office. "The goal is to get a rough sense of how much is being spent on capital infrastructure in different parts of the city," he explains. Who wants to bet that District 7, which includes downtown, is a major project hog, being the seat of city government, big business and ground zero for projects like the waterfront makeover?

Whether that capability ultimately makes good sense or is part of a slippery slope toward Balkanizing city politics into seven competing fiefdoms of 90,000 people each (the rough population of each district) is yet to be seen.

But the shift of the city management mindset toward districts is underway.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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