Break It Up

This column is called Five to Four, a reference to a split vote on Seattle's nine-member city council. The idea is to get at controversial issues that face our city. Controversy means tension; tension is a signpost of change; and change, after all, is what politics is supposed to be about.

Sadly for this column (not to mention, sadly for folks interested in change), 5-4 votes are rare at city hall. (There's been one split vote, 5-3, in the last five months. There were all of two 5-4 votes last year.)

Heck, the most contentious issue in Seattle, Sound Transit's light rail line, recently scored an 8-0 rubber stamp from city council. On April 29, former Sound Transit critics like Peter Steinbrueck, Jim Compton, and Judy Nicastro voted for an ordinance that saved Sound Transit's ass--shoring up a $50 million mitigation fund that Sound Transit needed in order to impress the feds.

This is all to say that if Seattleites are interested in having a council that reflects Seattle (lord knows Seattleites aren't unanimous about much of anything), they should show up at the May 18 kick-off party for the campaign for districting elections (to be held at the Mountaineers club, 300 Third Avenue West in Queen Anne, at 7:00 p.m.). Electing city council by district--as opposed to the nine citywide mini-mayors we have now--will give council members tangible constituencies and make it easier for challengers to run against incumbents. Most important, district elections will bring a diversity of opinion to city hall. Geographical representation is the model used in every other major American city, as well as in U.S. Congress.

Take the recent Sound Transit vote, for example. Some council members felt cowed into the vote because of pressure from South Seattle neighbors who were hollering for the money. With districts, only one or two council members would have been swayed by that pressure, while others would have been free to look at the bigger Sound Transit picture.

"Representative democracy is a better form of government," says Jeanne Legault, treasurer for Seattle Districts Now. "Seattle's gotten too large for this at-large system to work. Let's get some diversity on the council, and not just racial diversity. How about a few renters?" (Good point: There's currently one renter on the city council, and the city is 52 percent renters.)

Seattle Districts Now is setting out to collect 30,000 signatures by summer 2003 to get an initiative on the ballot that would change our at-large system to a nine-district system. This would be a change in the city charter, and so must go to the voters in an odd-numbered year, when city council elections take place.

The city council itself could put such a plan to voters anytime. But go figure--the incumbent council is opposed to the plan by a lopsided 7-2 margin.