October 13, 2012 – The Seattle Story: The love/hate relationship between Councilmembers and their Constituents

The ability to affect legislative change is largely measured in access and influence. The ability to produce good legislation is not only a matter of effective compromise but of identifying and correctly defining the problem being solved in the first place. When either of these breakdown, we have failed both democracy and ourselves. It is here, at the confluence of the Constituent and Councilmember, that we find the roots of the current movement to change the Seattle City Charter to elect 7 of 9 Councilmembers by district.

Virtually all large American cities have already moved to (or are in the process of adopting) seating most of their elected legislators by district. Seattle is now on another course to move there for the umpteenth time (attempts were made in 1914, 1926, 1975, 1995, and 2003, and most recently in 2009 when not enough signatures were gathered to get it on the ballot). Early efforts were related to attempts to break big business’ power over the city. Later efforts were more to balance the constituency relationship between citizen and elected official.

Some say that the current system creates more opportunities for new candidates to emerge than districts would, but the fact remains that only one incoming council member in the past four elections has unseated a sitting member. And following national trends, money in politics has soared, creating a significant barrier to entry for new participants in our political process.

The anecdotal notion that our citywide electeds represent everyone – and no one – rings true. While it’s nice to think that we have nine doors to knock on, in reality how many citizens have the ability to do the knocking (save for paid lobbyists and well-connected insiders) let alone find a receptive ear for a local concern. A districts system would function as effectively as today when we find a councilmember to champion a cause and work the issue from inside. District representation unburdens the citizenry from having to find that representative. And if the issue is pressing enough for their constituent(s) – it is more likely that legislative attention will be had. As is today, it is the elected’s responsibility to get the city to act. With two at-large seats and the mayor’s legislative influence, the citizens’ influence can go further.

Many issues touch all districts, yet it can be argued that city hall is not paying adequate attention to them. Would a district-based system have allowed the withering of the Department of Neighborhoods over the last decade, or the stripping away of the neighborhood planning process? Would our road and infrastructure conditions be allowed to decay to the extant they have? Would our streets be as unsafe, or the needs for services or public amenities be ignored be defunded?

While lofty ideals and posturing can rationalize the “big picture” perspective citywide representation allows thereby better positioning us to “deal” with Seattle as part of a region (transit, trade, sports) or the world (climate change), it is not evident that as issues this view would be lost with districts. However it can be argued that the specifics of how we “deal” with them would change. For citywide and national issues, there are already natural constituencies across the city. Activating these networks would get city hall hearing the problem from all quarters (or sevenths as the case may be) thereby allowing solutions to emerge that serve a broader range of the city.

Would a district-based system have allowed the concentrations of massive city investments in limited areas, at the neglect of others? Would an arena deal that deprives city coffers of hundreds of millions in tax revenues have been so easily tendered? Would approvals for transportation solutions favoring some at the expense of others been brokered?

To help us consider the viability and the potential realities of a city council with 7 seats elected by district and 2 elected at-large, we are fortunate to have with us former Seattle Councilmember Jim Street and attorney/political-sparkplug Cleve Stockmeyer. Ostensibly taking alternate positions on the proposal, we hope to explore how the proposed district election system could change the dynamics at city hall, and discuss whether better outcomes for the city, its citizens and the region can be had.

Jim Street was a member of the Seattle City Council from 1984 to 1995, including the last two years as its president. While a member of the City Council, Jim’s focus was environmental sustainability, grassroots political democracy and the needs of at risk youth. From 1997 to 2000 he was a King County Superior Court Judge including service in the criminal, civil and juvenile courts. And while Jim is ostensibly retired, he serves as a member of the Washington State Partnership Council on Juvenile Justice, which provides advice to the Governor and State Legislature on Juvenile Justice Policy Reform, and is a board member of the The Defender Agency, a non-profit public defender agency in King County. He is also working to overturn Citizens United through constitutional amendment.

Cleveland Stockmeyer lives in Green Lake, and is an attorney active in civil rights and personal injury cases. He formerly worked for Justice Phil Talmadge on the State Supreme Court then was a law partner with Justice Talmadge. Cleve is proud to note that he has helped win and lose elections citywide and in districts inside Seattle since moving here in 1991. These include a state representative run in 1994 in the 36th district, and two monorail board elections. He wrote a Seattle Districts Initiative in about 1999 providing for nine districts and none at large and has worked on dozens of elections and campaigns for local and statewide races. He has also been a precinct committee officer and has served on the boards of the 36th and 46th District Democrats as well as Transportation Choices Coalition, King County Conservation Voters and Feet First.


by Bill Bradburd 10/12/2012


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