Tired of divisive politics? Bellevue has some ideas

We keep hearing that divided, diverse government can’t work in these polarized times. True? Not necessarily.
This month I am stepping down after eight years on the Bellevue Planning Commission. It’s a diverse body — two whites, two African Americans, two South Asian Indians, and one member originally from Iran. Each of us has unique views, values and priorities.

The commission takes testimony from staff and the public on all things land use, from residential density to commercial development, from neighborhood issues to downtown livability. (Think about the uproar over Seattle’s “upzoning” and you get an idea of how contentious these issues get.) Like any planning commission, we dive deeply into the details of land use options and the arcana of land use terminology, and make policy recommendations to the city council. Usually council members accept our recommendations with minimal changes.
Yet, despite how red hot some of these issues get, we work through them without the ritual accusations of extremism, bad faith and excessive partisanship that are a hallmark of politics in both Washingtons — and at the Seattle City Council.

So what are we doing that’s different? A bunch of things. Let’s start with structure.

Temporary assignments. In Bellevue, planning commissioners are limited to two consecutive terms. You’re not there to build a fiefdom or a career. You’re there for a temporary period to focus on policies that will shape the future of the city you live in. And you have to be reappointed by the council.

You’re a volunteer. Despite the (usual) twice-monthly meetings that sometimes stretch past three hours, and the voluminous reading in between, you are donating your time. There is no glory, no press conferences, no media profiles. It’s an assignment for workhorses, not show horses.

Because there is no pay or fixed terms, interest groups don’t have the leverage they have on politicians who “need” the gig. They show up at meetings, and we certainly listen to them and are aware of their outsized impact on the community, but the only working weapon in their arsenal is persuasion, the same as everyone else’s.

A fixed lane to drive in. On the commission, you have a clear assignment: carry out the stated objectives of the city council in crafting land-use recommendations. Don’t go off on your own. I did this once after Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana. The city council assigned us to draw up parameters for where pot shops could be located (how many feet from schools, day cares and so on). I took the position that there should be no pot shops, that if people wanted recreational marijuana they could drive to Seattle or Renton to buy it. Our city council liaison, John Stokes, later the mayor, put up with me at first, then tartly reminded me that commissioners were there to implement the will of the council, which was that because Bellevue voted to legalize pot, retail outlets should be allowed in the city. End of discussion. Back in my lane.

Mutual respect. When I joined the planning commission, it was anything but collegial. The commission was in the middle of a pitched battle over updating the city’s shorelines policy. Anytime property rights, particularly those of longtime residents are colliding with environmental objectives and city staff priorities, you’re going to have fireworks. The planning commission was riven with mistrust and second guessing. A meeting was canceled once for lack of a quorum because several members on one side of the shorelines debate stayed home to keep the commission from voting a motion forward. I spent most of my first year doing little more than reading materials and listening to others. An unexpected resignation led to my being vaulted into the vice chairmanship, then a year later into the chairmanship, with the shorelines plan still to be settled. 

One of the things I noticed was that the local homeowners group, called the Sensible Shorelines Association, and the city staff, which had its own agenda, were effectively arguing with each other by offering dueling testimony in front of the commission. When I assumed the chairmanship, I asked both groups to meet directly with each other, resolve differences that could be settled on the margins, and save their testimony for fundamental differences. They did, and the number of issues soon began shrinking. Eventually one side on the commission had developed a majority for the shorelines plan, but I put off calling the vote because I sensed a consensus emerging. Instead, I asked a commissioner from each faction to work together on resolving the issue of setbacks between the property line and the water line. Once they reached common ground, we voted the final plan through on a unanimous vote.

Civility and respect are also enforced through maintaining order — and enforcing rules against disorder — at meetings of the commission and the Bellevue City Council. Quite the contrast with Seattle, where hearings are often marred by heckling, and sometimes dissolve into obnoxious intimidation sessions, occasionally egged on by council members. Hecklers should be warned once. If they persist, remove them. If they resist leaving, arrest them. The city council needs to draw a firm line between tolerating dissent and buckling to disruption. It’s the extremists who should be made to feel uncomfortable — not the other way around.

Get along. It’s not hard to be fair. The most overlooked quality in getting things done in government — or anywhere — is simply getting along with your fellow commissioners. You don’t need seminars and workshops about how to do this; the Golden Rule works just fine: Treat your colleagues as you want to be treated by them. It’s amazing how many highly educated, experienced people in politics don’t abide by that simple truism.

Imagine if Seattle City Council members did business this way. Is there a good reason why they don’t?

Having spent the first generation of my life growing up in West Seattle, Ballard and the University District, and the second generation raising a family on the Eastside, I’ve seen both the politics and the economy change over time. The biggest difference today is that Seattle’s economy is defined by innovation, creativity and dynamism, while its politics are now defined by ideology and extremism. There are two ways out of that. First, Mayor Jenny Durkan, who is neither an ideologue nor an extremist, should stop triangulating between council liberals and council leftists (like that disastrous Head Tax compromise) and instead do what Dan Evans did as a first-term Republican governor — invite the extremists to leave. Actively campaign against them, and denounce their politics of resentment and division. The second way home is for the voters to do the same thing in November. If you’re tired of all the division, stop electing candidates who thrive on it.

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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.