TWO separate ballot measures promise improvements to Seattle City Council elections. Both are high-minded efforts to make politicians more responsive to people than to special interests, but one is a better fit for Seattle.
Yes on council district elections
Voters should approve Charter Amendment No. 19, a hybrid election system of seven council members elected by district and two citywide at-large positions. This 7-2 model would begin with the 2015 elections.
Each council member is now responsible for more than 600,000 residents in the city’s booming population. Council members are spread too thinly.
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Where do people go if there’s a dangerous intersection in the Northgate area? No members of the present council live in that region, which would be District No. 5 under the 7-2 plan. And what if Port of Seattle and Sodo business-owners had a stronger voice to protect their economic livelihoods from an unwise arena proposal? Constituents could hold City Council members more accountable if they represented smaller regions of about 88,000 residents, as proposed.
Lest voters be concerned about gerrymandering, the proposed Seattle district boundaries were created based on 2010 Census figures by Richard Morrill, a renowned geography expert at the University of Washington. Lines would be adjusted after each 10-year census.
Opponents assume the worst when they warn that districts will cause council members to legislate in silos, remain in office too long and stop caring about all of Seattle. Funny, some argue that’s already happening under the status quo. Candidates are so focused on fundraising and spreading their reach citywide, they are less likely to knock on doors and get to know local concerns.
At least three previous efforts to create district elections failed, but neither had any at-large positions. This time, the model is supported by a long, bipartisan list of elected officials, including the King County Democrats and Republicans.
All but three of the country’s 50 largest cities have changed from at-large elections to district or hybrid models — for good reason. Seattle should do the same.
No on Proposition 1
Supporters of Proposition 1 — including several members of the sitting council — say it would increase competition in elections and draw more small donors.
It guarantees neither.
Proposition 1 would allow City Council candidates to join a publicly financed campaign program if they raise at least 600 contributions of at least $10 each. Taxpayers would match private dollars at a rate of 6-to-1. Candidates could receive a maximum amount of $105,000 during a primary and an additional $105,000 during a general election. Participants promise to cap spending at $245,000. The measure would be funded with a six-year property tax levy worth $2 million every year.
That means your tax money could back a candidate you don’t agree with.
A March 2013 evaluation by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission found little evidence to support claims that public financing increases competition in elections. Even if more candidates run, the commission’s experts found challengers regularly lose.
Partial-public financing was available in Seattle at various times between 1979 and 1991. In 1992, state voters passed Initiative 134, which prohibited this practice. Five years ago, the state Legislature allowed cities to pursue public financing again, but only if the money came from local residents.
The tax levy is a modest increase ($5.76 for the owner of a home valued at $350,000), but it’s not the most pressing need.
The biggest contrast between Charter Amendment 19 and Proposition 1 is cost. District elections are cheaper to run than citywide races. But with public financing, taxpayers foot the bill and have no choice where their money goes.