HAVE you ever contacted city government about problems in your neighborhood? A barrage of burglaries? Broken streets? Struggling neighborhood businesses? Chances are you were bounced around or your problem was not solved.
Soon, however, Seattle neighborhoods will have a new voice: the City Council district election system overwhelmingly approved by voters. Instead of electing all councilmembers to represent the entire city, we will elect seven of the nine to represent the neighborhoods where they live.
Working as a City Council legislative aide, I was one of the few expressing optimism about changing the system. That’s because I experienced the benefits firsthand. A decade ago, I worked for a councilmember in another community that had districts, where I personally helped to deliver positive results to neighborhoods. That’s what local government is supposed to do.
As The Seattle Times noted when it endorsed district elections, “All but three of the country’s 50 largest cities have changed from at-large elections to district or hybrid models — for good reason.” It’s time to embrace the new system and look forward to its benefits:
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• More appreciation of neighborhoods
• More accountability for results
Currently, councilmembers get distracted crafting or responding to lofty resolutions (including foreign policy) rather than focusing on the basics: tackling neighborhood crime, maintaining streets and evaluating programs to ensure results. City departments eagerly approve construction applications for developers while our neighbors, busy with jobs and families, find out only after it’s too late to comment. Too many councilmembers are persuaded by interest groups to adopt or expand costly programs without first scrutinizing: “will this program work?” and “what will be the cumulative tax burden on families?”
District elections will incentivize councilmembers to focus on neighborhoods and families rather than lobbyists and interest groups. Your district councilmember will need to respond to your concerns and ideas because you live down the street, you see each other at coffee shops and your vote will be much more influential.
Some are concerned the city will suffer the same dysfunction we see in King County, Olympia and Washington, D.C. But city elections are nonpartisan. Moreover, the size of each city district (about 90,000 residents) is much smaller and more manageable than Metropolitan King County Council districts (217,000), state legislative districts (137,000) and U.S. House districts (over 700,000).
Some are concerned districts will dramatically change how city government is organized. To investigate this, City Council President Tim Burgess commissioned a study of similar cities, including San Francisco, which switched to districts after citizen frustration with their nonresponsive, at-large system. The study found that those cities did not reconfigure their executive or legislative branches. Simply electing councilmembers by district sufficiently addressed neighborhood concerns.
Yes, the change to City Council districts may seem chaotic at first, but Seattle will thrive. The mayor and the two at-large councilmembers can articulate a citywide vision and make sure the city budget invests in proven programs rather than pet projects.
The key is to elect a district councilmember with sufficient Seattle city government experience, a genuine understanding of your neighborhood and independence from the older, downtown power brokers.
With a district City Council member:
• The abandoned buildings plaguing Northeast 65th Street in front of Roosevelt High School would have been demolished months ago.
• We can implement best practices to help the homeless get real housing.
• We could hire more police officers to be on the streets, using data to prevent crime.
• We’d be able to do more to reduce overcrowding in our neighborhood schools.
But, district elections are more than just a new voice for our neighborhoods. They are a more effective and optimistic version of self-government that will enable our city government to become as great as our city.
Alex Pedersen is creator of the 4toExplore.org neighborhood newsletter and a parent in the Ravenna neighborhood. He is former legislative aide to Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess.