The Nine Mayors of Baghdad

Malaika Lafferty and Christine Lea sent a letter to the city's land use point person last week, complaining about Mayor Nickels' South Lake Union development plans. Good luck to Lafferty and Lea; they'll need it. Nickels has already made up his mind. Heck, he's staking his name on the $570 million plan.

That's cool. Turning South Lake Union into a hub for the potentially lucrative biotech industry, surrounded by housing, shops, and restaurants--is a legit goal for Seattle's mayor.

What's not cool is that Lafferty and Lea don't have any choice but to send a letter to someone who can safely ignore them. The mayor is elected citywide--rightly so--and doesn't have to worry about alienating particular neighbors. But what if, by alienating Lafferty and Lea, Nickels pissed off one of the nine city council members because that council member was elected from Lafferty and Lea's district? In other words, what if Lafferty and Lea had someone to write to who couldn't safely ignore them? In other words, what if city council members were elected by districts?

I know what you're thinking: Because Nickels isn't wedded to one constituency, he can get cool things done. He can act. But it works another way. Since the mayor isn't confronted with a check on his power--like a legislative body made up of members empowered by geographic constituencies--the city's de facto constituency becomes rich South Lake Union developers (Paul Allen). Since the council members don't have a legitimate constituency backing them and holding them accountable--people like Lafferty and Lea--council members can't or won't stand up to the mayor.

I know what you're thinking: One council member representing South Lake Union couldn't stand up for Lafferty and Lea, because that one council member is, well, just one among nine. Wrong. Another council member--say, a council member representing Northgate, where the mayor also has controversial plans (inspired by Simon Property Group)--might see a reason to team up with the South Lake Union council member. The Northgate council member might see that it's in his or her interest down the line to team up with the South Lake Union council member. And that's how legislative coalitions--and effective checks on executive power--are built.

I know what you're thinking: Won't this Balkanize city hall and result in neighborhood vote-trading? Yes--and this is what democracy looks like. Interests compete and intersect in a government of checks and balances.

And it's sure better than the current Seattle model, where no one--certainly none of the nine folks on the council--has a constituency. If a politician takes office without a constituency, does that politician exist? No. Basically, each council member is like the Iraqi who proclaimed himself mayor of Baghdad in mid-April until he was arrested this week by U.S. forces for "exercising authority he did not have."

With nine mayors of Baghdad on your council, it's no wonder powerful developers like Paul Allen end up filling the vacuum.