How district elections will change governing

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Seattle City Council, as it is now

For the first time in a generation, voters are electing Seattle City Council members by district. Even though that’s the norm in most municipalities, it has an odd feel to it here in the Emerald City. It will bring many changes, including heightened accountability, a restructuring in government and a greater focus on local, neighborhood issues — those are things people care most about. What those issues are, we are just beginning to find out thanks to the “small d” democracy being practiced this year on the streets of Seattle.

When Charter Amendment 19 passed in 2013, there was much angst and handwringing about what the voters (a whopping 66 percent of them) did. Although I supported the initiative, I do know how those on the losing end felt. I know the truth of the old line from the famous California political consultant, Dick Tuck: “The voters have spoken — the bastards!”

Well, the ahem, voters, have spoken clearly that they were not happy with the status quo, and wanted to know who to call when they have a problem at city hall. The upheaval brought by the voters is already creating big changes in how campaigns are waged, issues discussed and prioritized, and how politicians respond.

The changing council also hints at some revisions in the city bureaucracy that should be studied as soon as the elections are over. This could involve everything from how departments like SDOT, Seattle Public Utilities and City Light communicate and deliver services to how the Department of Neighborhoods is organized.

One of the biggest changes already being felt though, is the number of candidates running for city council.

This year, our council primary features the largest crop of candidates in memory — 47. And these candidates are knocking on tens of thousands of doors, attending community events, and best of all: listening! Candidates are asking individuals at their doorstep what they think about the direction of the city, and what they’d like city government to focus on. Can anyone honestly say this has ever happened in the at-large era? That era, which is now coming to a close, was dominated by special interests, think tanks, and bloggers — what I call the Global City Council. In fact, that body oftentimes resembled a think tank more than it did a municipal city council.

But things are changing pretty fast. Witness the quick turnaround Mayor Ed Murray did on his own 28-member Housing Livability and Affordability task force (HALA) recommendations. After boldly declaring the need to atone for the racist past of single family zoning by opening it up to other housing types, he soon heard from his friends on the campaign trail knocking on doors. It became pretty clear that this proposal was not going to fly with the voters.

Predictably, the think tanks and special interests are disappointed with the mayor for what they see as a caving to the vocal minority. But actually, it is they that are the minority and haven’t quite figured it out yet. Apparently the mayor and city council candidates have become quick studies of who will be voting.

While representative democracy appears to have focused the minds of elected officials, turnout continues to disappoint.

The multitude of campaigns and tens of thousands of doors being knocked does not appear to be driving voter turnout — something supporters of district elections had hoped for. While this could change, the numbers reveal that turnout in the city is roughly equal to the turnout countywide: terrible. We are on a trend to have turnout well below 30 percent of registered voters. (Whatever the reason for this, on one thing we can all agree: The August Primary is terrible.)

In addition to political changes, alterations to the city’s operating structure should be anticipated as well. First and foremost, we will likely see adjustments at the Department of Neighborhoods. For years the operating assumption at Neighborhoods has been to fill a void — namely, a lack of representation by an at-large city council. Neighborhood district coordinators operated much like a district-elected council member might today, connecting constituents to information about the city, facilitating meetings and helping community groups get organized. Having city council members also occupying that space is going to alter the dynamic. How will this change the neighborhood district coordinators’ jobs and geographic distribution?

Another area for potential change is the little-known city creation of the District Council system and City Neighborhood Council. This is a formalized structure created by city ordinance to create a neighborhood hierarchy, which will inform government of the needs of neighborhoods. You could probably ask everyone on your block what they knew of this structure and they would have no clue.

With duly elected district city council members, isn’t it time to re-think this system? The people who claim to represent their neighborhoods in this structure are given authority over any number of issues, including making comments on the annual budget and voting on Neighborhood Matching Fund grants.

But inevitably, the people in this system feel they don’t receive enough attention. City staffers don’t give them much respect, because nobody really knows what they do or how they got their position. It is a perfect example of the dangers of a government-created structure for community involvement, which goes on to decay and lose relevance to the community at large. It is also unfair to the people who have given so much of their time over the years.

It would be far better for the new city council members to reach out to the communities they represent, and be available to the grassroots to reflect their needs and aspirations. This is already happening. It would be sad if an old and somewhat anachronistic structure hindered the natural evolution of community involvement and broader participation made possible by district elections.

Some questions to look for in this most interesting election year: Will the secret weapon in these campaigns be doorbelling, leaving pundits in the dark as to who are the winners and losers in this subterranean campaign? Or will independent expenditure campaigns prove effective at tipping the scales? What issues will rise to dominate the general election campaign? Transportation, growth, and affordable housing, or will public safety rise to the top if we have a particularly violent summer? We have an uptick in shots fired in our neighborhoods and the tragic shooting death of a neighborhood hero, Donnie Chin, in the Chinatown International District. If crime and street disorder accelerate, it will dominate much of the discussion.

Whatever happens and whoever wins, next year’s city council will be much more focused on the needs of their constituents than on the need to impress at national conferences. They already are and that’s a good thing.


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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.