By Prince Wang, UW News Lab / Special to CHS
The Seattle City Council this week finalized its cut of connection with district councils and the City Neighborhood Council. The approved ordinance severs ties with a longstanding system of neighborhood governance with proponents saying the move will further the city’s goals of increasing participation of underrepresented groups with local government through a Community Involvement Commission.
“I think the core motivation is to create broader involvement and more inclusiveness in people talking with and dialoguing with city government,” said the City Council’s Tim Burgess, a sponsor of the ordinance.
Seattle is currently divided into 13 districts, each with its own district council made up of local members in the community that discuss problems and areas of concern in their community and also lead the way on vetting certain proposals and grant applications. The City Neighborhood Council is composed of elected officials from every district council.
CHS reported earlier this year on City Hall’s push to disconnect itself from the entrenched district council system. Many of the system’s participants like Dan Sanchez, chair of the Central Area Neighborhood District Council, criticized the city’s movement away from the groups. “These Community Councils choose a representative to attend our Central Area Neighborhood District Council meetings,” Sanchez wrote. “These representatives are not all white and in fact not all homeowners.”
Under this new ordinance, the district councils will no longer receive dedicated support from the Department of Neighborhood’s Neighborhood District Coordinators, who have served as the liaisons between the councils and the city. Instead, these coordinators and other DON staff will focus more on broadening community outreach and engagement as well as supporting other city departments doing the same.The city will also no longer give the district councils $543 per year to use for things like room rentals or refreshments.
The ordinance won’t have any direct impact on grassroots community councils like the Capitol Hill Community Council that aren’t formally attached to City Hall processes though they could likely benefit from general improvements and resources made available at the community level for outreach and engagement.
The new Community Involvement Commission appointments will be made by the city council, mayor, and the commission itself. It aims to give underserved and underrepresented populations a greater voice by advising the city council and the mayor on issues important to them, according to the legislation.
Council members voted 9 to 0 in favor of Council Bill 118834, which was developed in response to an executive order issued by Mayor Ed Murray in July that outlined the creation of the new commission.
“As we look back over the last 20 to 30 years, I think the mayor recognized that there’s a need to modify that formal path of citizen participation with city government,” said Burgess.
This leaves some citizens, like Ballard resident Linda Melvin, concerned that the neighborhood voice is being taken away by yet another appointed council.
“The neighborhoods are more and more going out of these discussions,” said Melvin after Monday’s vote. “Our words are not being heard.”
Melvin also believes that the mayor is no longer interested in the concerns of the district councils because the commission is appointed, unlike the district councils.
“It’s going to be another city-appointed commission versus a neighborhood organization,” said Melvin. “It’ll be top-down rather than bottom-up.”
For Troy Meyers, the secretary of the City Neighborhood Council, this new ordinance feels like an insincere attempt by the city to improve outreach and engagement. If they were really committed to the idea, they would have tried to fix the existing system, said Meyers.
“Nobody is going to say that the district councils system was perfect,” said Meyers. “It would have been painful and hard to improve it, but I think this is more painful and harder than that would have been.”
Janis Maloney, a City Neighborhood Council representative, believes the district councils should receive more support from the city because having a DON employee dedicated to the council to relay their concerns is more efficient. She’s worried that removing this support will deter community members from participating in the district council because they won’t be able to accomplish their goals as quickly.
But the city believes that removing this extra support will allow the redistribution of personnel and resources to better support even more community groups than before. The district council and City Neighborhood Council could also still exist under their own leadership.
A visit to a session of the East District Council covering Capitol Hill in September, however, revealed a group with no firm plan on how to move forward.
Burgess said he is grateful for the engagement that members of the district councils and City Neighborhood Council have shown. But ultimately, Burgess said he hopes that the new commission will increase the number of voices beyond what has normally been heard.
“One thing I’m particularly proud about in Seattle, and this commission certainly will help this, is that we bend over backwards to make sure that voices are heard in our city,” said Burgess. “Sometimes that gets frustrating because it slows things down. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s to our advantage, and it’s more helpful than harmful.”