Mayor Ed Murray’s tone-deaf decision to cut ties with district councils should seed a new neighborhood uprising, writes Jonathan Martin.
The belly of the beast, as Mayor Ed Murray has defined it, was on display Monday evening at the library branch in Fremont: A neighborhood council of white, 40-ish North Seattle homeowners gathered in a basement … to talk about crosswalks.
Volunteering time to improve your neighborhood is both rewarding and thankless. Inside City Hall, eyes roll at the mention of these kinds of meetings and the city’s 13 district councils that are supposed to represent the wants and needs of neighborhoods.
Last week, Murray dissolved the city’s 28-year relationship with these grass roots councils and the citywide neighborhood council they feed, and cut their dedicated city staffing.
As I understand it, Murray was trying to re-imagine how neighborhoods engage with City Hall. He has a point. These evening meetings of district councils are clubby and, frankly, boring. They have little power and lots of frustrations. I’ve lived in Wallingford for 13 years and had no idea I was represented by the Lake Union District Council until I went to a meeting on Monday.
But the mayor is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of reforming the system, he is kneecapping the councils. They now will have the legal standing of a Boy Scout troop.
Rollout of the decision was so poorly handled that it immediately bred conspiracy theories. Because who trusts City Hall when it comes to what neighborhoods want?
“It looks like the mayor is taking a head-on run at the last community-centric department and instead appointing the person from (developer) Wright Runstad or whomever,” said Jonathan Flack, an Eastlake resident and filmmaker, at the meeting in Fremont.
The timing is awful. Neighborhoods are roiling over Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), protesting a “grand bargain” struck in secret among developers and housing advocates, but not with regular citizens. Two groups have filed appeals over proposed land-use changes.
Taken all together, the proposals would give the current frenetic, poorly managed pace of development a shot of steroids.
In the 1990s, when Seattle’s urban village plan was created, the city struck a deal with the citywide neighborhood council, giving it input on the plan. Fast forward 20 years, and Murray proposes replacing district councils with some vague new commission. The mayor’s spokesman said it would be hand-picked appointees, raising the absurd idea that the mayor would self-select his own grass roots input. City Hall has since backed off that idea.
Kathy Nyland, the mayor’s head of neighborhoods, is trying to tamp down conspiracies about the mayor’s developer-friendly agenda and diminishment of neighborhood voices.
“There is no tie-in with HALA. The timing is entirely coincidental,” she said. “I can honestly say what happened last week is a response to what people have been talking about for years — doing outreach and engagement better, not checking a box.”
But Murray didn’t make Nyland’s job easier by describing the district councils as a “barrier” for — get ready for this — “immigrants and refugees, low-income residents, communities of color, renters, single parents, youth, people experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ … to become involved in the city’s decision-making process.”
There were no thank-yous to district council volunteers for years of service.
Murray’s message was heard loud and clear in North Seattle neighborhoods: City Hall hears too much griping from the white, middle-aged, homeowner klatch. Nevermind these meetings are open to anyone.
“Neighborhoods are starting to call Mayor Murray ‘Mayor Putin’,” said Miranda Berner, president of the Wallingford Community Council. She said she voted for Murray because “he seemed to really listen” but got involved in Wallingford last year out of frustration with development plans.
“If he doesn’t like your input, he finds a way to dismiss it because of the color of your skin or the neighborhood you live in,” Berner said.
The irony of Murray’s baby-with-the-bath-water approach is that the city is mostly to blame for the district council’s struggles to diversify. A 2009 city audit cited inadequate staff support and vague roles between the city and the councils.
But the audit sat on a shelf. Nyland acknowledged just one of the audit’s 10 recommendations were acted on. And the city continued to starve the district councils. Two in South Seattle have no city staff support at all.
Seattle needs a new neighborhood rebellion. There’s talk about converting the endangered district council system into a political action committee, with capacity to endorse candidates and donate money. Good idea.
As the saying goes, you can’t fight City Hall. But you sure can un-elect the leaders who dismiss your voice.