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NIMBY heaven or real representation? Seattle City Council district proposal heads to ballot

Screen Shot 2013-09-28 at 1.48.42 PMThis November, Capitol Hill voters will get a chance to help decide if the Seattle City Council should shift to a district-based election system. Be careful. The change could be a costly one for the increasingly dense neighborhoods of proposed Seattle District 3. 

“We didn’t draw these based on density, we drew it on population,” Seattle Districts Now campaign coordinator Eugene Wasserman tells CHS. “It doesn’t really matter if you live in an apartment or house, most people have the same basic issues.”

Under the proposal, Seattle would be carved out into seven districts with a council member elected from each district. Two additional council members would be elected at large. Each district would have roughly 87,000 voters.

Seattle-Districts-Now_7-2_MapOn August 5 the Seattle City Council voted to place the measure on the ballot after the Seattle Districts Now campaign submitted the required number of signatures. If approved by voters in November, Charter Amendment 19 would require district elections in 2015.  The boundaries were drawn by Richard Morrill, a demographer and University of Washington professor.

Wasserman and other supporters of the proposed amendment say it would bring more accountability to Council and would allow younger and less politically connected candidates to run for office. Opponents, however, say the boundaries — set in stone for a decade — ignore important cultural and demographic boundaries and would give undue weight to less-populated areas of the city.

Under the current proposal Capitol Hill and the Central District would be a part of Seattle District 3, which also includes the heavily residential, homeowner dominated neighborhoods of Madison Park, Madrona, and Montlake.

SEIU 775 union rep David Rolf called the plan a “Craftsman homeowner empowerment act” in an interview with the Seattle Times earlier this summer. Those against the charter amendment have also argued that the at-large council members already divide themselves into informal neighborhood districts based on where they live and the issues they champion.

Wasserman says the effort to create the district lines intentionally ignored elements like cultural boundaries, efforts to form minority-majority districts or apartment dominated districts.

Instead, Wasserman said districts were drawn largely along natural geographical boundaries, with lines through Lake Union, the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and The Duwamish River.

The lack of cultural and density inputs has created some interesting groupings. For instance Magnolia is lumped in with Belltown and downtown in District 7, instead of getting paired with Ballard just across the cut. “Downtown and Magnolia are part of the same police district — that’s even more unbelievable,” Wasserman said about the District 7 grouping.

Wasserman said Districts Now made only one change to the district boundaries following community input. According to Wasserman, residents in Eastlake felt that the neighborhood was inappropriately divided with a boundary across Roanoke. The map has since been updated to place the entire neighborhood west of I-5 into District 4.

The charter amendment  being voted on in November would require that the district be redrawn every decade.

Today, City Council members are divided by chairing various committees from parks to public safety. If you have a specific issue, a citizen can bring it up with the Council member who chairs the relevant committee. According to Districts Now, the committee system would remain. But opponents point out that Council members ill be less likely to hear out the issues of residents outside their district. One group of opponents, Choices Not Districts, filed the statement against the charter amendment for King County Elections:

City council members should be accountable to all of us.  Districts pit the interests of one geographic area against the others rather than addressing the common good.  We need to elect the best qualified candidates who will work for the common good, regardless of where they live in the city!


The districting advocates’ argument is that geography trumps freedom of choice.  Their argument is that you are better off to have to vote for someone you may not like who lives in your district than to have the freedom of choice to vote for the candidates of your choice regardless of where they live in town.  Just because someone lives in your part of town doesn’t mean that he/she shares your political ideologies.

Chances for the amendment to be approved would seem slim. Seattle voters have rejected similar proposals before, most recently in 2003. The big difference this time around is the incorporation of the two at-large seats and pre-planned boundaries. According to Wasserman, all but three of the largest 50 cities in the country use some form of district representation: Seattle, Portland, and Columbus, OH.

“Regular people have to be more involved and part of the conversation and it’s very hard to do that with the at-large system,” Wasserman said. “This is not a small town anymore.”

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19 thoughts on “NIMBY heaven or real representation? Seattle City Council district proposal heads to ballot

  1. This looks like another nice-sounding proposal that’s counter-productive in practice.

    When my neighbors started having safety concerns in central Cap Hill [and my house got broken and trashed by homeless druggies], it was Councilmember O’Brien (who doesn’t live anywhere in our neighborhood) who asked to meet with us and learn what the city can do.

    I cringe at rules that could have prevented councilmembers like him from getting elected if there were only one resident of that district allowed into city council.

    It sounds like what we need are responsive, caring and engaged city council members. Not ballot measures like these that limit that pool.

  2. I’m all for this in concept, but I dislike the ideas of borders based on geography, it completely negates population density and detracts from the voting power of the people in the most dense areas. It’s likely true that people in/around Pike/Pine have more in common with those of First Hill, than those up by Mont Lake. Yet they’re thrown in together because it makes a nice picture.

    I can also see it leading to a lot of specialized interest of each district, rather than for the city as a whole. While Seattle isn’t a small town, and should be working to lower the barriers to entry in political positions (who the fuck has 300 grand to throw at an election?) I don’t really think this would help that much.

  3. This is a tough one. I agree with previous comments that although this looks good on paper, in practice, the more densely populated areas (potentially) are under represented. However, in theory, the two “at large” seats should help the areas around Capitol Hill and Downtown. If seats 8 and 9 tend to represent the area between the downtown core, east up Cap and First hills, then maybe those seats will ultimately reflect both culture and density in the way the formal districts do not.

  4. The statement by Wasserman that “It doesn’t really matter if you live in an apartment or house, most people have the same basic issues” just shows you how tone deaf and single family homeowner centric this proposal is. Not only do the issues between single family homeowners and multifamily rents often NOT overlap, they are often diametrically opposed.

    Multifamily renters by and large want affordability – and choice – in their rental options. Which means denser housing; mixed-use development blending residential with commercial; more modestly sized units; and land use patterns that maximize development opportunities on available land. This is in sharp contrast to what single family homeowners want – which is limited development; low rise, detached, single family home development; restrictive, minimum lot size zoning; and the segregation of residential from commercial uses.

    Its pretty clear from the maps that the proposed district maps served the interests primarily of single family homeowners. The “we are just dividing it up by ‘geography'” is just so much hot air. We aren’t dividing up a Northwest Territory. The City isn’t divided by mountains or giant rivers. Its a modestly sized City with some highways running through it and some hills. Big deal. Dividing along identifiable communities of interest, whether social, cultural, socio-economic or otherwise would go further in ensuring a diversity of voices in Seattle has a seat at the table than what they are proposing.

    The SEIU is right – this is a Craftsman homeowner empowerment act and nothing more. Take our neighborhood – the residents of the Broadway core and Pike/Pine have a lot more in common with the interests of residents in SLU or Belltown or even lower Queen Anne, than with Madison Park.

  5. When I previously lived in a city with representative districts, I knew who to contact regarding issues or to provide feedback to. And I voted based on my perception of that person’s performance. In Seattle, I never know who to send feedback to, so I end up emailing all the City Council members. Sometimes I get a response from 1 or more, sometimes not. To me, it’s an accountability issue – to know who’s ear to go to and whose performance to watch.
    Just like I know to contact Jim McDermott, my U.S. House Rep. ( for the 7th district), or Jamie Pederson, my Wash. State Rep. (for the 43rd district), I’m all for having district representation on a city council level.

  6. Maybe I’m being naive, but wouldn’t density work in your favor? If your area is much denser than Madison Park, then surely you’d have more voters who’d be able to elect a council member for your area who is sympathetic towards the needs of dense neighborhoods?

  7. I’m voting for this, but I don’t think its fair that Northgate and West Seattle get their own districts. I don’t think they technically count as part of Seattle. Give their 2 seats to the Duwamish and Queer Youth Space.

  8. This was voted down not that long ago and has been voted down before that and I will vote against it again. I like having not just one council member I can go too for help.

    • I don’t understand this repeated comment from people… Do you think the Transportation or Parks Committee chairs are only going to be concerned with transportation projects or parks in their neighborhood???

      Would you argue that we should elect ALL King County Councilmembers at-large, then? Or make the state legislature run statewide?

  9. This issue of how the measure “separates dense areas to empower Craftsman voters” is not based in reality.

    First, all the districts have to be population equal by state and federal law. This means you can’t group the most dense areas together — they’d have too much population and you couldn’t balance them out with the less dense areas.

    Second, the idea the district boundaries carve up the city’s urban centers isn’t accurate. If you read the FAQ on the campaign’s website you’ll see they address this issue. Look at the proposed boundaries and then look at this map of urban villages and centers and you’ll see what they mean.

    Lastly, another poster got it right. If there is an issue a concentrated urban area feels strongly about, they’ll be able to elect Councilmembers who will listen. They’ll outnumber, as a percentage, the “Craftsman Voters” in any single district. This is why pro-density people like the Seattle Bike Blog’s Ben Schiendelman support it.

    When they went to districts in San Francisco, their government became more progressive — not less — despite lots of entrenched powerbrokers claiming the opposite would happen. There’s a reason 47 of the 50 top cities in the US already elect by districts and why the American Civil Liberties Union never sues to change a district system into an at large system — district systems are inherently more representative.

  10. The critics of the proposed district boundaries have some valid points, but districts per se are absolutely the way to go. Moving to districts in San Franncisco broke a decades-long ideological stalemate and quickly resulted in a solidly progressive majority. Do the progressives opposing this measure seriously believe that our current council reflects their values? It’s hard to imagine this is the case. I’m voting yes and looking forward to an energetic and beneficial debate over just where the boundaries should be.

  11. Anyone who looks at the districts as drawn and thinks that some are more favorable to owners of Craftsman homes (or other wealthier urban homeowners) doesn’t really know much about the city.

    One district encompasses the U District’s density with Laurelhurst. One has the same person representing the Highlands and the low income housing areas along Aurora and Lake City Way. Another represents the Pike-Pine corridor, 23rd and Jackson, and the mansions around Volunteer Park. Every district is a mix of density and single family homes, wealth and poverty.

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