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.