Seattle’s Mini Mayors

Our's is one of the last big cities with an ‘at large’ city council. Some say it hurts neighborhoods
Chris Grygiel  |   October 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

As he travels around Seattle seeking support for his City Council candidacy, Bradley Meacham hears the same two questions over and over again. “Can I vote for you?” and “Do I live in your district?” Every time, Meacham hesitates. The answer is complicated: Yes, Seattle voter, you can vote for Meacham. But no, you don’t live in his district.

Unlike the County Council, the state Legislature and many big cities nationwide, where representatives are elected by district—an area made up of individual neighborhoods—the nine-member City Council is elected citywide. That means on November 8, every Seattle voter will get to cast their ballot for all five open council seats, instead of just one. Proponents of this “at large” system say it gives Seattleites the maximum influence on their council, because every citizen is a constituent of every council member. But others say it actually has the opposite effect; that because specific council members don’t come from, say, North Seattle or Belltown or South Seattle, those neighborhoods aren’t getting the direct representation they deserve. Instead of being forceful advocates for local issues and concerns, critics say, too often the Council becomes a body of “mini mayors,” focusing on broad policy issues, instead of the meat-and-potatoes stuff like zoning, sidewalks and traffic. That creates an accountability vacuum, some say. There’s a joke in area political circles that captures this sentiment: If you call your County Council rep about a pothole, you get the pothole fixed. If you call the Seattle City Council, you end up with a commission on potholes.

Meacham, a former financial journalist challenging incumbent Bruce Harrell, says there’s another problem with the current setup: Candidates have to raise a huge amount of money to get elected, which he says gives powerful interest groups and corporations too much sway.

“Running citywide in Seattle is roughly the equivalent of running across an entire congressional district,” Meacham says; the area is huge. Because there are so many people in Seattle, going door to door isn’t practical. To get their message out effectively, candidates tend to rely heavily on expensive television and direct-mail advertising.

“It’s hard to run for office, and it should be. It shouldn’t be easy to get elected. But it should be possible for regular people to do it,” Meacham says. “You shouldn’t have to be in hock to special interests…that shouldn’t be the primary consideration, especially at the local level, where policy and politics touch people the most.”

Meacham hopes to eventually raise $150,000, which he calls a “shoestring” budget for a council race. His opponent, Harrell, had already raised more than $230,000 by early summer. The other four incumbents also had impressive hauls, weeks before the August primary, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission: Tom Rasmussen (close to $300,000), Tim Burgess (more than $200,000), Sally Clark (more than $210,000) and Jean Godden (close to $185,000). It’s war chests like these that scare off potential opponents.

Longtime City Council member Nick Licata (who is not up for reelection this year) first took office in 1998. He agrees that the current setup favors sitting officials like him and his colleagues.

“I think incumbents are a little more secure citywide than in districts,” he said. “Districts allow for opponents to do more of a field operation, which is very difficult to do in a city of a half-million-plus people.” (Seattle’s population is about 608,000, according to the latest U.S. Census figures; a district system would cut the number of potential constituents exponentially.)

But having a relatively safe seat doesn’t mean Licata likes the way we elect council members; in his ideal world, there would be a mix, with some on the council representing the entire city and others coming from specific neighborhoods. Boston uses this method. Licata has supported previous efforts to change things, but the system we’ve used since 1910 has proven resilient; voters rejected proposals to move to a nine-district system in 1995 and in 2003. An effort to put a mixed election system before voters in 2009 failed to go anywhere.

Seattle is a bit of an anomaly for a city of its size. According to the National League of Cities, only 16 percent of municipalities with more than 200,000 people use an at-large system (Portland has an at-large system, too; its four commissioners represent the entire city), while 45 percent (including New York and Los Angeles) have districts, and 38 percent use a combination of both.

But here in Seattle, support for change isn’t easy to come by. That seems counterintuitive in a city in which neighborhoods are so strongly defined. Capitol Hill is very different than Magnolia, for example, and West Seattle is literally removed from the rest of the city by the Duwamish River and Elliott Bay. The city is home to an active system of vibrant neighborhood blogs—like the West Seattle Blog—that chronicle minutiae, events and activities, often on a block-by-block basis.

But in reality, people you’d expect to jump at the chance to have their own, dedicated representative at City Hall aren’t actually clamoring for change. Fran Conley, who lives in north Capitol Hill’s Roanoke Park neighborhood, is a leader of the Coalition for Sustainable 520. She’s been a sharp critic of state plans to expand the 520 bridge, fearful of the preferred option’s impact on her neighborhood. Conley has been frustrated in attempts to plead her case with council members—but she’s not ready to blame that on the fact that nobody at City Hall bears direct responsibility for her geographic area.

“I do like the citywide system,” she says. “I think it’s good having council people looking after the welfare of the whole city, rather than simply diverting resources to their own districts.” After all, Seattle isn’t Sequim; in this big city, many voters want their elected representatives thinking big thoughts about how to make a major American city more livable and relevant. Until they don’t.

It’s no coincidence that the most recent attempt to get a district system approved by voters came after December 2008 snowstorms paralyzed Seattle, exposing a municipal government that failed to get the basics right: making it possible for its citizens to move from point A to point B. Almost as frustrating as being stuck in the snow was the feeling expressed by many that they didn’t know who to complain to.

But, like previous efforts to overhaul city government, this one stalled, too. Licata thinks he knows why: “I think Seattle’s cultural attitude is such that people like the idea of everyone voting for everyone.” Conley says it’s not the system that needs replacing, it’s the elected officials. “There’s something quite dysfunctional about the City Council at the moment,” she says. “Why do they have so much ‘group think’?” The answer to that may lie in the fact that there’s almost no ideological tension on Seattle’s City Council; members run the spectrum from liberal to very liberal. But their challengers are almost always also on the left of the dial, so changing people doesn’t change the dynamic.

Licata recognizes that the council can often seem confounding to casual observers, especially to people with specific concerns about their block.

“Committee chairs change at least every three or four years. And most people in the city don’t know who’s chairing which committee,” he says. “At least in the state Legislature, they use the seniority system. Here, we rotate…it’s like a submarine—we’re all supposed to know how to operate the system.”

And by system, Licata means helping to run the whole city, which makes it “difficult to juggle all the micro-neighborhood issues.” He’s intrigued by the way some European cities operate. Licata recently visited Edinburgh, a city of nearly a half-million in Scotland. The City of Edinburgh Council has 58—that’s right, 58—members that represent 17 wards, or districts. “There, it’s really micro, so people really know who represents them,” Licata says. “I’m intrigued by that model.”

Despite his interest in the Scottish system, Licata realizes things aren’t going to change here anytime soon; right now, there are no efforts pending to do away with Seattle’s at-large system. So for now, Licata, like Meacham, will continue to give the long answer to the short question “Which district do you represent?”

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