Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s abrupt decision to dump neighborhood district councils challenging his land-use policy is troubling.
The unceremonious dumping of Seattle’s neighborhood district councils by Mayor Ed Murray is disappointing.
The Seattle City Council should pause before signing off on this mayoral consolidation of power. The council should give residents a say in whether their neighborhood groups should have a formal role in planning and projects.
The district system isn’t working as well it could, partly because of vacillating support from City Hall since the councils were created in 1987.
Yet Murray’s timing is suspect — he abruptly dumped the councils last week, as some began challenging the sweeping land-use changes he is aggressively pushing through.
Those changes will alter the character and potentially the quality of life in neighborhoods. They would allow most houses in the city to be converted into a cluster of investor-owned apartments. Many residents are rightly concerned and becoming more engaged because they are feeling steamrolled.
Neighborhood groups are a traditional entry point for civic engagement. The original goal was to get neighborhoods involved in planning and foster consensus. In forming councils, the city said it wanted to partner with neighborhoods, pursue development reflecting “their needs and values” and “design city plans, regulations and programs to suit the diverse character and development patterns of the city’s neighborhoods.”
Such dialogue and community-driven planning made Seattle one of the nation’s most livable cities. That livability is why modern Seattle became so successful and such a powerful economic engine for the region.
Yet in dumping the councils, Murray cast it as a social justice issue, noting that most participants were older, white homeowners.
This divisive tone implies councils were discriminating or excluding people. Actually anyone could participate but only some people chose to — a big difference. The reality is that people who are older and own homes are more likely to engage — and voluntarily spend evenings discussing land-use policy.
Blame for the failures of the neighborhood district councils lies partly with City Hall, which did a poor job supporting and broadening the system, according to a 2009 city audit.
Murray cited the 2009 audit last week but not the administrative failings that it identified. The audit called for renewing the system and cited examples in other cities. Portland is a current model; it encourages neighborhood groups to engage in policy and land-use discussions.
Instead, Murray cherry-picked the audit’s concerns about diversity, then used executive fiat to sever ties with councils. He plans to replace them with a commission of people he’ll pick to advise him on neighborhoods.
Also troubling is that an elected official who professes to want more civic participation would dismiss and impugn volunteers who cared enough to engage.
The Seattle City Council should salvage this fiasco and prove that it represents the concerns of all residents. It can do what Murray should have done:
Start a conversation about how and whether to improve the councils, without resorting to yet another commission that would shift power from communities and toward the administration.
That would respect the civic role of neighborhoods and lead to a truly inclusive path forward.