SEATTLE voters delivered a forceful message last week whenthey voted to drop at-large city council races in favor of district elections.
Council members and future candidates must acknowledge the extent of voter dissatisfaction that led to this groundbreaking shift. City Hall officials’ job now is to make sure the new system works in time for the 2015 election cycle.
Once the vote is certified, city officials must educate voters. A searchable online map is a good start. Show people in which of the seven districts they live. Two council seats will remain at-large.
People are tired of feeling like their city council members operate in an ivory tower in downtown Seattle. They want representatives who live and spend time in their neighborhoods, knock on doors and respond promptly to constituents’ concerns.
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At the heart of the matter is accountability. Who can residents call when crime spikes on a street corner? Or when an ill-advised development is planned without the existing community’s input?
Council members will be more empowered to listen and focus their advocacy efforts when they’re in charge of a district with about 88,000 residents instead of a citywide constituency of more than 600,000.
If the 7-2 hybrid model works the way it has in other large cities, Seattle voters should see more candidates canvassing communities and spending less money than they would in citywide campaigns.
While it may take another election cycle or two, district elections are also opportunities to bring much-needed racial and age diversity to the council.
“The council’s become way too static. There’s no energy,” says Eugene Wasserman, one of the organizers behind the successful Seattle Districts Now campaign. “Now, they’re going to have to learn real politics.”
Of course, district elections are not a magic bullet. They will not give constituents every park or sidewalk repair they want, and council members must learn to balance neighborhood interests with citywide needs.
They can’t work in silos, either.
Policy proposals will still require a majority of the Seattle City Council to become law.