Some of Seattle’s wisest, wonkiest City Hall watchers were taken by surprise by an announcement from the office of Mayor Ed Murray Tuesday that the current Neighborhood District Council system will be reworked into what the press release called the Community Involvement Commission. The announcement comes days before a consultant hired by the city to evaluate the district council system was set to give recommendations for change.
UPDATE: Murray said Wednesday a process has begun to remove city support and resources for the neighborhood district councils. The councils might live on but they will do so as independent bodies. Focus groups will be formed to determine the best path to dissolving the city’s ties. The aim is to have legislation moving forward by fall to restructure the city’s relationship with neighborhood groups.
“Seattle must, as it was three decades ago, be on the cutting edge of innovation by creating new community engagement processes,” said Mayor Murray at Wednesday’s press conference. Murray said that Seattle needed ways to better engage people not represented by the councils, such as young people, renters, immigrants and minorities. “They shouldn’t be cut out of the discussion of how we as a city make decisions,” said Murray.
The mayor’s executive order instructs city departments to “implement more inclusive and equitable engagement practices.” The initiative will be led by the DON. The city is severing formal and financial ties to the district councils, and resources previously allocated to those councils will be re allocated to engaging with neighborhood community groups more broadly. Officials Wednesday said that part of what the Community Involvement Commission will determine over the coming months will be how and where those resources should be redistributed.
“Suddenly from nowhere the mayor comes out with this announcement,” said the East Neighborhood District Council’s former chair Andrew Taylor. “The two sentences from the press release were all we heard.”
The current review of the district council system was put in place in part to address concerns that the district councils do not fully represent neighborhoods; for example, people who work evening shifts or cannot afford public transportation would find it very difficult to attend the district council meetings. “There were concerns that the East District Council doesn’t fairly represent minorities,” said Taylor.
In June, a City Council committee heard preliminary details on a report that took a hard look at how representative the district councils were. The report did not include results for the East District Council.
In 2016, DON will spend over $1.2 million dollars on the council program “for outreach and engagement to Seattle residents,” according to the report.
The neighborhood councils are currently City of Seattle-supported components of City Hall’s community process to vet certain proposals and grant applications. The system is part of the fuzzy cloud of “community” Seattle’s leaders refer to when they say they are acting on “community priorities” or tell you the “community has spoken.” The neighborhood council system mostly busies itself with city grant processes these days — the East group has been vetting these proposals for safer 10th/John crossing to Capitol Hill Station, Melrose enhancements as part of the Neighborhood Park and Street Fund process. There are also times when there isn’t much business to attend to.
A driver for change may be a response to parochial fights driven by local councils across the city. A group in Queen Anne, for example, has successfully delayed the city’s plans to loosen up development of backyard apartments. They’re targeting HALA next. The Capitol Hill Community Council, meanwhile, is a bastion of progressiveness in comparison. But the community councils aren’t formally attached to City Hall processes like the current neighborhood district councils organized by the Department of Neighborhood.
A spokesperson from the mayor’s office said that the Community Involvement Commission is intended to address the concerns of unequal representation in the district council system. However, he said that the mayor’s announcement was the beginning of a process that will involve community input. “This isn’t like we’re installing a brand new system that’s going into effect tomorrow,” he said.
A more clearcut driver for change came with the change in how Seattle elects its City Council. The neighborhood district council system is a holdover from the time before Seattle moved to district representation on the City Council. CHS looked at how the neighborhood councils needed to change to mesh with the new District 3 world here in 2015. This overhaul could be the answer.
A DON spokesperson tells CHS aligning the 13 district councils with the seven City Council districts “was one idea that was floated” but said specifics will come from the mayor’s office. “The executive order is from the mayor’s office,” the spokesperson said. “The city council started the process with a statement of legislative intent.”
The mayor is schedule to announce details of the new system Wednesday afternoon.
Taylor says the mayor’s announcement came out of nowhere because no recommendations for change have yet been made to the district councils. The consultant reviewing the system was set to give a final recommendation on Friday, July 15. A draft of the report had been circulated to the district councils, but Taylor says it “made no recommendations for any change.”
Amanda Helmick, a West Seattle community activist and chair of the Delridge District Council, was very apprehensive about the mayor’s announcement. “The timing’s a little interesting,” she said. The district councils were supposed to be reviewing feedback on the existing system this week.
Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland was set to speak to at the Capitol Hill Renter’s Initiative meeting Wednesday about the department of neighborhoods and the district council system, as well as the “recent review of how to make the district councils and neighborhood engagement generally more inclusive of renters and other groups that haven’t been well represented.” Nyland’s appearance at Wednesday night’s meeting was planned before the mayor’s announcement was scheduled, CHS is told.
Helmick said that she was frustrated in part because this is not the first time the system has been reviewed. There was an audit in 2009 that made recommendations for changes to the system, but Helmick said to her knowledge most were never implemented by the city.
The mayor’s spokesman said that the Community Involvement Initiative would be largely a Department of Neighborhoods-led effort. Mayor Murray is speaking on the initiative at a press conference at 2:30 PM Wednesday afternoon at City Hall, and will be joined by representatives from the Department of Neighborhoods.