Will Seattle get a more accountable City Council?

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The more campaigning changes, the more it stays the same? But governance is changing.

I have to admit to a certain lack of enthusiasm about the City Council races. In this first round, the new district system is less interesting than anticipated.

The lackluster August primary showed that the status quo, money and incumbency are still huge factors in council races. Neighborhood, grassroots candidates were largely marginalized or eliminated. A voter’s chance to influence city policy is more restricted. November’s results are likely to reflect this, but the hope for some kind of electoral surprise always springs eternal in a journalist’s breast. And the most refreshing aspect of districts so far has been the pre-election flushing out of incumbents. We will see new blood—there will be at least four new members when the new council convenes in January.

Still, I jokingly liken the new district elections to getting a shopping spree at Whole Foods—but with only $3 to spend. Seattle voters get a wide range of challengers to pick from, but now only get three votes that count instead of the former nine. You can vote for two of the at-large council candidates and for the representative of the district in which you reside. That’s it. That means six council members will be elected with no thanks to you, nor any real obligation to you.

Yet these council members will be hugely influential, running citywide committees, taking votes, advocating citywide policies, shaping the city budget. With the district system, we’ve traded having nine semi-accountable elected council members for having one directly accountable representative and two semi-accountable ones.

I don’t think we’ll see the real impact of new system until we’ve been through a few election cycles. The shifts will become more evident over time because districts will change how the city is governed more than how we gather votes. Money will still be a huge factor in the elections, districts or not.

But governing will shift. You can see it already. The city is now tracking capital expenditures by district. Some predict the impact of districts will be most evident in a few years as the city budget shifts to reflect district influence. Will there be budget equity between districts? Or will some tend to dominate the budget? What will be the consequences of parochial politics shaping city priorities?

And then there will be the eventual redrawing of district boundaries based on population changes or rectifying problems with the current set-up. If Seattle’s residential neighborhood patterns are a legacy of segregation, so, too, are districts based on them.

Last week at a city council committee meeting, an example of the coming shift was in evidence during a discussion about approving funds for a controversial mountain bike trail in the Cheasty Boulevard green space on Beacon Hill. The only council member at the meeting who asked remotely tough questions about the pilot program—to be funded in part by a neighborhood matching grant—was Bruce Harrell, who is running to continue representing southeast Seattle, where he lives. He expressed concerns, raised by some neighbors, about parking impacts, accessibility and how the success or failure of the bike trail would be measured.

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A drawing of the proposed trail (December 2014) Credit: Johnson Sutherland

Other council members, who don’t really have a dog in the accountability fight, were more content to accept general arguments about the bike trail being good for the city on general principles. Sally Bagshaw commented that Harrell’s concerns reflected the influence of district politics. He’s the only elected with his rear end on the line if the project proves problematic.

So, one effect could be that while districts are intended to increase district influence, it might sometimes marginalize it—until it comes to the kind of horse trading for votes and support likely to be seen during annual budget negotiations. On Cheasty, Harrell—the guy who lives nearest—is on the hook in a way his fellow council members are not. So, while everyone in the 2nd District will know who to complain to (Harrell or his opponent in November, Tammy Morales), his fellow council members don’t have any skin in the game if these are problems. And, if he’s back next year, his effectiveness will be judged on how he bends the other eight council members to his will.

You can multiply this by a thousand citywide.

The long-ago shift from the district system that was in place in Seattle prior to 1911 was a decision to broaden the influence of the city council away from ward politics, a reform that sought to end Chicago-style tendencies that had crept into city politics.

No one expects the current district system to return to that. But the ultimate test of whether districts are a reform of the longtime at-large system will not have to do with campaigns like the current one, but with what comes after: governance. Will the new system be more accountable and more responsive? Or will the district system generate more dealing and dodging? We’ll start to get the answers in November.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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