Electing most City Council members by district instead of at-large could dramatically change every decision the council makes, starting now.
“Right away, every council member has to be thinking about their district,” said John Fox, a low-income-housing advocate and backer of Charter Amendment 19, which overwhelmingly passed Tuesday.
Fox said council members who might have considered the interests of the city as a whole, or, as he and other critics assert, downtown developers and wealthy campaign donors, now have to think about the districts in which they live, the neighborhood activists and issues.
The amendment creates seven geographic council districts and two at-large positions, to represent the city as a whole. All nine council members will have to run for re-election in 2015. The two at-large winners will have to run again in 2017 so they will be on the same ballot going forward as the mayor and city attorney, the other officials elected citywide.
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The measure has already claimed one casualty. Councilmember Richard Conlin, who just won re-election to a fifth term after a tough-fought race against socialist Kshama Sawant, said he won’t run in 2015.
“I don’t want to put myself or my family through that again,” said the 65-year-old Conlin. Sawant tweeted election night that if the two met again in a race for the Capitol Hill/Madrona district in which they both live, she would defeat him.
Political consultant John Wyble said the smaller districts, each with about 88,000 people, will make it easier for new candidates to get known and make campaigns more affordable. He agreed with Fox that the measure will dramatically change Seattle politics.
For example, “The candidates north of 85th will be talking about sidewalks,” he said.
Current council members’ homes happen to be distributed around the city. Two live in each of three of the new council districts. Current council members will have to decide whether to run against a colleague in the same district, seek one of the two at-large positions or not run at all. No one currently lives in the northern- most district of the city.
The charter amendment also could attract more community activists who are well-known in their district or some current state legislators who might want a larger salary without the long commute to Olympia, said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, one of three current City Council members to be the sole occupant of one of the new council districts.
But Rasmussen, a West Seattle resident, also sees drawbacks. He said the change puts the burden on council members to deliver for their own district rather than prioritizing projects and initiatives based on their importance citywide, such as mass transit and environmental sustainability.
“There may be very compelling needs throughout the city, but if those folks don’t vote for you, you’re not going to spend time on those issues,” he said.
Rasmussen speculated that every district council member would want an accounting from each city department of how many resources are going to their district, from human services to parks to transportation to police. And he questioned whether there would be any incentive for other council members to support a West Seattle project, such as a new senior center.
“Why would the eight others care?” he asked.
Current council members, who have served an average of 10 years, may still have the advantage of incumbency under a district system, including name familiarity and fundraising experience. But backers of the measure point to the potential for several open seats in 2015 and the likelihood that those will attract new candidates.
Conlin said the people of Seattle generally elect good candidates. He doesn’t think district elections will change that. But he does wonder what incentive there will be for a member from one district to take on a tough but important project in another district, such as the work he’s done over the past several years around a new Northgate light-rail station.
“I don’t think it will be a disaster, but there will be growing pains,” he said.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org