The Seattle City Council favors downtown interests over neighborhoods, doesn’t spread resources such as road repair and parks across the city equally, and mostly listens to developers and lobbyists, argue supporters of a ballot measure to change the way the city elects council members.
“Downtown gets the largesse while some neighborhoods can’t even get a streetlight,” said John Fox, an advocate for low-income housing and a supporter of Seattle Charter Amendment 19.
The amendment would change council elections from nine at-large positions to seven representing the city’s geographic districts and two elected citywide.
Opponents of the measure say the current council looks out for the interests of the city as a whole, is a more effective regional advocate and is accountable to all voters, not just to those in a single district.
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“When you elect a council from the whole city, you expect them to think about the big picture. Places with district elections, like the U.S. Congress, aren’t functioning at all,” said Nancy Bagley, a former president of the Seattle League of Women Voters, who opposes the charter amendment.
Seattle is one of only three cities among the 50 largest in the country to not have some form of district elections (Portland and Columbus are the two others). Voters here turned down proposals to divide the city into council districts in 1975, 1995 and 2003. The current measure attempts to address some of the previous criticism. It leaves two at-large positions and it presents voters with a map so they can see the district divisions and not rely on an unknown committee to determine the boundaries after the election.
University of Washington geography professor emeritus Richard Morrill drew up the map with seven districts each with roughly 88,000 residents. The map largely follows geographic boundaries, with West Seattle a single district and Southeast Seattle another.
A labor-union leader this summer called the districting measure a “Craftsman homeowner empowerment act,” saying it favored single-family homeowners and split up into separate districts concentrations of apartment dwellers, who tend to be younger and less affluent.
Morrill said that’s not the case. Three of the proposed districts, 7, 3 and 4, have a majority of renters. Three other districts, 6,5 and 2, have nearly 50 percent renters. Only West Seattle, he said, is predominantly single-family homeowners.
For him, the most convincing arguments for districts are that they provide geographic representation that better reflects the variety of the city.
A Survey USA poll done for KING 5 earlier this month found 30 percent of likely voters supporting Charter Amendment 19, while 14 percent said they will vote no. But the largest group, 56 percent, said they hadn’t decided. The poll of 700 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
In the past, district elections have generated support from labor and progressive activists and opposition from business and good-government groups. But unions have largely stayed on the sidelines of this measure and both the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association have decided not to take a position. The League of Women Voters also did not weigh in on the issue.
Only the Municipal League Foundation has come out against the measure, saying it was not convinced that the current council with its entirely at-large representation “isn’t working or needs to change.”
One group, Choices Not Districts, registered with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to oppose the measure but hasn’t reported any contributions.
On the pro side, many Seattle-area state legislators including Frank Chopp, Gael Tarleton, Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Gerry Pollet, and both the King County Democrats and King County Republicans, have endorsed the change to district elections.
But the Seattle Districts Now campaign has been almost entirely funded by Faye Garneau, a North Seattle businesswoman who has contributed about $232,000 of a total $255,000 raised through Oct. 1.
Garneau said she feels strongly that the city is headed in the wrong direction. She cites an abundance of process and a lack of basics such as police protection and street repair. Garneau said she also is concerned about her rising tax bill.
“We already tax ourselves to pay for roads, parks and schools and the elected officials are all talking about doing it again. I think they’ve lost touch with the people who are paying for things,” she said.
Some advocates for the poor and homeless also support the district elections measure as a way to lower the cost of City Council campaigns, encourage more grass-roots activists to run and reduce the influence of deep-pocket donors.
David Bloom, a former deputy director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, said the current council hasn’t responded robustly to the problems of homelessness and it continues to give developers tax breaks for multifamily housing projects that produce few low-income units.
Bloom, who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 2009, said that with races now costing an average of $250,000, many qualified people are reluctant to run, particularly against an incumbent.
“We have very active neighborhood councils and democratic district organizations. If we elect council seats by district, I can see more people coming out of those organizations to run,” he said.
Former City Councilmember Jim Street is skeptical that a district system would dilute the influence of money on candidates or better address issues such as low-income housing or human services.
“District elections create an ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ deal-making on the City Council,” Street said. He said many decisions now, including traffic safety and police allocation, are made on the basis of objective criteria such as crime rates or accidents.
Under a district system, he said, each neighborhood would try to get its own needs met without concern for the priorities of the city as a whole. And he says the current council serves as a check against the mayor’s power. In a district system, he said, the council’s power would be diluted.
“Seven different constituencies with seven different issues. Would they work better together? I think a broader perspective is better than a narrower one,” Street said.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes