What Have We Got to Lose?
A New Way to Elect the Seattle City Council: By Districts
Check out this map. It shows the city chopped up into seven districts, each of them roughly equal in population, and it was designed by a new campaign attempting to overhaul Seattle City Council elections. As the campaigners envision it, each district would elect one council member, while two council members would be elected citywide. So, for example, if you live deep in North Seattle, in the campaigners' imagined new District 5, you would vote for two at-large council members and one representative for District 5.
The group, called Seattle Districts Now, says its hypothetical District 5 illustrates the problem with Seattle's present system, in which all nine council members represent the whole city: Not one of them actually lives in that particular region of North Seattle. So when residents of this hypothetical District 5 are angry that the city never built sidewalks in that part of town—which North Seattle residents have been complaining about for decades—they don't have a specific representative to take their problems to. Activist David Bloom says the current at-large system encourages all of the council members to "represent downtown interests at the expense of neighborhoods."
This is how Seattle lawyer Cleve Stockmeyer, also a part of the effort, explains the benefit of electing a district representative instead: "It is better to have one person you can fire than nine people you can talk to."
Last week, in the converted old schoolhouse University Heights Center, Stockmeyer, Bloom, and a band of other neighborhood activists and business owners laid out their plans for a 14-month campaign. They need to get 30,000 signatures to place a charter amendment on the ballot next year. They've banked $10,200 so far, and they plan to raise more than $200,000 to help them get the rest of the signatures.
One of the benefits, they say, is that district elections would lower the cost of running for office. Take Council Member Tom Rasmussen. He raised more than $300,000 when he ran for reelection last year (scaring away any viable challengers). By shrinking the population of the electorate for each council member, Stockmeyer explained, campaigns would become more affordable to the common person, and once people are elected, they would be more accountable to their constituents.
Aurora Avenue Merchants Association executive director Faye Garneau added that Seattle would also stop being "so antiquated in our government." She says Seattle is one of only three remaining cities in the US with a population over a half-million people that hasn't switched to district elections (along with Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio).
But their campaign is hardly in the bag. Seattle has rejected districts three times before—in 1975, 1995, and 2003. Seattle Districts Now says this proposal is different. It will woo voters because districts would elect only seven seats (the 2003 measure elected all nine positions by districts). In addition, Richard Morrill, a demographer and former University of Washington professor, has already drawn the boundaries (as you can see in the map), removing questions about where the new districts would be.
Still, critics are surely waiting in the wings. In 2003, the Municipal League of King County wrote that districts could result in a council that focuses on "narrower, more parochial issues at the expense of more important citywide or regional issues." That concern is valid, particularly given that many members of Seattle Districts Now represent neighborhood groups and used their press conference to kvetch about minor issues, including congested neighborhood roads and a bridge that needed repair.
The question for Seattle is: What do we have to lose from a new system?
The current council has a death grip on lifetime careers by cozying up to big donors who work largely for downtown law firms, developers, and people who lobby the council. They've proved to be staunch defenders of some conservative agendas, backing more and wider freeways, punishing the poor, and even weakening laws designed to clean up elections. Meanwhile, progressive bills originate almost entirely from two liberal members of the council—Mike O'Brien and Nick Licata—who are the sort of candidates Seattle could still elect citywide.