In a vote with little fanfare today, the Seattle City Council laid the groundwork for spending half a million more dollars every year on staffers to help them do their jobs.
As it stands, each council member can hire three full-time legislative aides, who help with scheduling, policy research, and attending community events. Today's vote upped that number to four—a move that carries a price tag of about $500,000 a year, according to at-large Council Member Tim Burgess, who chairs the budget committee and was the lone "no" vote today.
Other council members argued that the recent switch to representing districts, rather than the entire city, has made their job harder. (Thanks to a 2013 change approved by voters, seven council members now represent districts and two represent the whole city.)
"I think voters voted for the district setup because they want their representatives in the field, in the community," Council President Bruce Harrell, who represents south Seattle and the International District, told me this morning. "The expectation is much higher now... The workload has increased."
The increase seems counterintuitive, as others have also pointed out. Seven of the nine council members are now representing fewer people and smaller swaths of the city, yet asking for more staff.
Council Member Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle and previously worked as a council aide, acknowledged that today. But she argued that the previous system allowed council offices to refer calls and emails to whichever council member chaired the committee dealing with the issue at hand. Now, no matter the topic, if it's in a council member's district, that member has to respond in some way.
"The expectations for constituent response, in particular, have greatly increased," Herbold said. "We're really doing sort of triage to get the public good answers on many, many more issues than we previously have."
North Seattle's Debora Juarez said council members "can no longer afford to ignore our communities and critical issues and expect to get elected." After rattling off a list of 20 issues she says her office has had to research, ranging from homelessness to transportation and sex trafficking, Juarez said, "You cannot tell me three people can do all of that. You simply can't."
The thing is, in some other cities, three or fewer council staffers are doing it. According to a 2014 report from the city auditor's office, at least five other cities that elect council members by district and have populations similar to Seattle's or larger have just three staffers per council member or fewer. (All of those cities do have more council members than Seattle's nine, though.) In Austin, Texas, for example, 10 council members have three legislative aides each. In San Francisco, each of the 11 supervisors has three aides. Plus, all nine Seattle council members—including the two who represent the whole city just like council members always have—will benefit from this increase.
In the grand scheme of the city's $5 billion budget, $500,000 may not seem like much. But the move is an indication of how districts may expand the council's bureaucracy and budget. According to budget documents the council will consider in coming weeks, they'll get about $375,000 in unspent money from last year to use for new staffers or for district-based office space this year. (That works out to about $42,000 total for each office for the rest of the year, which means some of the new hires may not be full-time this year, Herbold says. Each council member has discretion to decide how much their legislative aides are paid, according to council staff.) Next year, the mayor and council will have to find that money in the general fund. It remains to be seen whether the council's productivity will be expanded to match its increased expense.
Before voting "no" today, Burgess told me flatly, "I don’t think we need four legislative aides."
"Is this the highest and best use of these funds?" Burgess asked his colleagues. "I'm not at all confident our constituents would answer that question with 'yes.'"
This post has been updated to reflect the fact that some hires this year may be part-time.