Big changes coming to the Seattle City Council could mean equally big changes for the city, with more focus expected on neighborhoods and such issues as paid parental leave and closing the wage gap for women.
Seattle’s City Council appears poised for a new political dynamic as 2016 brings with it a new president, four new members and district representation.
Bruce Harrell is set to become president, taking over from Tim Burgess. The change won’t become official until the council votes Jan. 4, but Harrell already has begun doling out committee-chair assignments to his colleagues.
Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson and Debora Juarez will bring fresh blood to the nine-member council, as will Lorena González, who got a head start by winning the citywide Position 9 seat. She replaced temporary Councilmember John Okamoto on Nov. 24.
González will be one of five female council members, giving women a majority for the first time since 1998. She’ll also be one of four people of color on the council.
Johnson and González are both in their 30s, whereas outgoing council members Okamoto, Nick Licata, Tom Rasmussen and Jean Godden all are older than 60.
“The diversity on the new council reflects how the city is growing,” González said.
How might the council’s new composition translate into changes for Seattle residents? González predicted the group will push hard to close the pay gap between women and men, and to get immigrants in the city more involved in government.
The council earlier this year approved paid parental leave for city employees, with one argument being that the move would help narrow the pay gap. Some members have said they now want to secure paid parental leave for private-sector employees.
“(The council’s new makeup) is definitely going to matter on paid parental leave and all issues related to gender equity — closing the wage gap for women,” González said.
For the first time in more than 100 years, the council will include members elected by geographic district — seven of them.
It remains to be seen how much the districts will change the council’s business, but Juarez has big plans. The new District 5 council member said she hopes to hire a district manager to work full time in North Seattle.
“We in my office are going to be very district-oriented,” Juarez said. “We’re going to show people what boots on the ground in a district really means.”
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said she intends to hold office hours in District 7 — which covers Magnolia, Queen Anne and downtown — possibly at community centers.
Supporters of the 2013 ballot measure that created the district system argued it would make council members more responsive to everyday, street-level concerns.
Lisa Herbold — Civil rights, utilities, economic development and arts
Bruce Harrell — Education, equity and governance
Kshama Sawant — Energy and environment
Rob Johnson — Planning, land-use and zoning
Debora Juarez — Parks, Seattle Center, libraries and waterfront
Mike O’Brien — Sustainability and transportation
Sally Bagshaw — Human services and public health
Tim Burgess — Affordable housing, neighborhoods and finance
Lorena González — Gender equity, safe communities and new Americans
Seattle City Council
“We’ve already started to see some neighborhood issues bubble to the surface,” Burgess said, citing an effort by Harrell earlier this week to keep the required distance between marijuana stores and sensitive venues such as schools at 1,000 feet.
“His position was legitimate, but we saw a very geographically focused argument being made,” said Burgess, who won re-election last month to Position 8, one of the council’s two remaining citywide seats.
Harrell warned against reducing the marijuana-store buffer without seeking the views of people in Southeast Seattle’s District 2, where such businesses might cluster.
“These districts are not alike. They’re separate and unequal,” said Harrell, noting District 2 is the city’s only majority-minority district. “Council members need to be sensitive now to the unique character of each district. That’s a new conversation.”
Some Seattle voters hoped the election would give activist members on the council’s left wing a clear majority.
That didn’t quite happen. Sawant and Councilmember Mike O’Brien won, as did Herbold, an aide to their frequent ally Licata. But other candidates seen as aligned with them were defeated. Newcomers Johnson, Juarez and González call themselves independent thinkers.
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“I don’t have any connections behind the scenes,” Juarez said. “I don’t like labels. Some people think every renter is a deadbeat or every developer is greedy. The world doesn’t work that way. You need an adult in the room.”
Nonetheless, O’Brien expects the new council to wield a sharper sword in seeking concessions from business to make the city more affordable. He pointed to a debate Monday over the council selling a public alley to Amazon.
When González, Licata and Sawant joined him in objecting to the terms of the deal, it was put on hold.
“To me, what happened showed this subtle shift,” said O’Brien, whose seat is District 6, which includes Fremont, Ballard and Phinney Ridge. “I think there will be a re-examination of fairness throughout the system … We’re going to be a lot more aggressive than in the past.”
The committee-chair assignments will dictate which members drive policies forward. Burgess will chair a committee including housing, while Johnson will head the council’s land-use committee. They’ll lead on legislation related to recommendations by Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) Committee.
Johnson, who will represent Northeast Seattle’s District 4, is an advocate of dense development near transit hubs. He’ll be responsible for making sure the HALA Committee’s “grand bargain” doesn’t fall apart, he said. It calls for developers to build and pay for rent-restricted units in return for upzones in certain parts of the city.
González will chair a committee responsible for public safety, which means she’ll oversee police-accountability legislation coming soon to the council.