Running a City of Districts (and the Politics of it)

2013 has been proclaimed a watershed election in many ways. And while the shakeup at City Hall has ousted an unpopular mayor and the arguably most powerful councilmember, it is Charter Amendment 19 and the move to District Elections for Councilmembers that will provide aftershocks for some time to come. Fundamentally, Districts requires rethinking the City.

All Council seats are now up for election in 2015: 7 district seats (a four year term) and two at-large seats (a two year term that will run yet again in 2017).  The district and at-large seats will thereafter be on alternating election cycles (the at-large seats are the same election cycle as the Mayor and City Attorney starting in 2017).

And in order to think both citywide and in districts will require a bit of agency rejiggering. Everything from allocation of street maintenance dollars to crime reporting will want to be viewed through eight lenses: the 7 districts and citywide. No doubt departmental planning, funding, reporting, and staffing will need to be considered and tracked relative to other districts. And while such scrutiny is something many favor and some avoid, the effort to get there is clearly non-trivial. Police precincts, capital improvement projects, urban villages, park lands, neighborhood boundaries and a dozen other bureaucratic configurations do not necessarily line up with the District boundaries – boundaries that by the new law will shift every decade in order to keep the districts population balanced.

But where will it be important and necessary to dissect at such a granular level? Balanced acreage of park land may not be an issue amongst Districts, but easy and safe access to parks in the district may be. By not aligning the police precincts can we force Council to look at policing from a citywide perspective rather than devolving into arguments over the number of car prowls and foot patrols per capita in a district?

The current council committee structure silos members into functional towers of responsibility.  How will they work together in a district system? The promise of districts is that all council members would take an equal interest in land use or transportation and not ignore the concerns of their constituents. But is expertise in a variety of subject matters even possible?

Without a doubt, advocacy from the citizenry will have to change. Cross-district communication will need to be strengthened such that consistent messaging and common goals become the norm. Already we see some organizing occurring in the individual districts and moves to make this citywide.   In the past the City strove to enable community empowerment.   Will the City step up to correct the many flaws in the neighborhoods District Council system and seek to find a better way to engage communities on a broad spectrum of local issues as it has proposed to do with neighborhood planning?

Just how will policy platforms play out across the various districts? Are there consistent views of how urban development should be handled, or what mode of transportation should take precedence? And will the demographics of Seattle and the districts be more, or less, of a factor in Seattle’s future? As we know, Seattle is not homogenous.

We are just now really beginning the debate, yet some elements of the implementation are needed quickly. Which gives us an excellent opportunity to explore just what is the scope of the problem, what should be considered by the City as a priority, and just how will all of this play out over the coming months with yet another significant election looming in the not too distant future (i.e. next year!).

This month the SNC will have a panel discussion of these issues with City Council President Tim Burgess, demographer and Seattle Districts Now advisor Richard Morrill, political consultant Benjamin Anderstone, and District Coordinator & Public Outreach Manager at the Department of Neighborhoods James Bush.

Please join us for an exploration into the possibilities for Seattle.

[by Bill Bradburd, Feb 3, 2014]

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