Fixing City Council

Seattle Soundings

Who do members of the Seattle City Council represent?
It's tempting to say, "Nobody," but that's not exactly true. If you would like to build a six-story, mixed-use cube (retail on the ground floor, market-rate condos above, maybe a floor or two of offices, if you're creative), there are at least seven out of the nine council members who will jump at your command.
If your name is Paul Allen or Martin Selig, they'll use a pole vault.
But if you're an ordinary citizen who wants to get a pothole fixed or a community center properly staffed, nobody represents you.
Instead, all nine council members are elected "at large," which means they need to get votes from the whole city and don't feel any accountability to any particular part of it.
Running to win citywide - which requires about as many votes as running for Congress - has become so prohibitively expensive that each and every council member represents the people who can bankroll their campaign. Or that of an opponent, if they're not servile enough. Any other supporters are incidental.
This has been a problem in Seattle politics for a long time, but it's getting worse. In the last 15 years, exactly two candidates, Nick Licata and Judy Nicastro, have managed to get elected with their own primarily grass-roots support. The last, Nicastro, was elected to one term in 1999.
A more recent case, Mike O'Brien, arguably fit this description last year, but his campaign primarily rode on the momentum of the populist mayoral campaign of Mike McGinn.
If you set aside O'Brien, the two most recent activist-fueled City Council campaigns - David Bloom (2009) and Joe Szwaja (2007) - were vastly outspent and failed to get even 40 percent of the vote. These days, it takes $200,000 to even be competitive in a council race.

Representative of downtown
Getting on to council is one problem; a bigger problem is what candidates are doing, or not doing, once elected.
Aside from the reliably progressive (and increasingly isolated) Licata, all other eight council members are assorted shades of business-friendly moderate Democrat. A decade ago, the downtown clique that likes to run Seattle was comfortably entrenched in City Hall; every mayor from Wes Uhlman to Greg Nickels was elected with their help.
But the council - which at one time (circa 1999) had five members who claimed (however dubiously) membership in the Green Party, and which long had a couple of seats informally reserved for the city's African-American and Asian-American populations - was a semi-reliable check on downtown power.
Now, the situation has been reversed. Eight of nine council members are white; seven are men; none are renters. Only Licata and law-and-order guy Tim Burgess have any kind of clear constituency. They're also the only two that consistently show any sort of leadership.
McGinn - who took on the establishment by ousting first Nickels and then T-Mobile CEO Joe Mallahan while being outspent 3-to-1 last year - now controls City Hall. And on issue after issue, a more conservative, intransigent City Council is opposing him. This would be fine, if these were issues in which a substantial part of the city agreed with the council.
But on issues like cost overruns for the downtown tunnel, the anti-panhandling ordinance or streetcar development, almost all of the demand for the council's positions is coming from offices at least 10 floors above whichever downtown street they're on.
That sort of near unanimity (Licata and, at times, O'Brien have been the lonely dissenters), representative of only a sliver of the city's population, isn't healthy for anyone. It means the best ideas are often not even debated, let alone adopted.
It means council members like Jean Godden can keep getting elected based on local celebrity without having not only any record of leadership but even any clue as to what the city's major issues are. It means our legislative system is broken.

Time for change?
From time to time, the city has considered ballot measures to create a mixed-district, at-large system. The most recent attempt, in 1995, narrowly failed after a scandal involving a major Republican donor (Republicans, of course, are another unrepresented minority on Seattle's socially liberal, tax-happy council).
Including some geographically based districts - the 1995 measure had six districts and three at-large seats - wouldn't necessarily reduce the corporate money that's poured into civic elections. But it would make it feasible for an insurgent candidate to publicize himself/herself locally - it's a lot easier to reach 100,000 residents than 600,000.
More importantly, each city resident would have at least one council member whose job it is to look after their interests.
Presently, most of the members of Seattle City Council could not care less about most issues affecting people outside the downtown business area. Perhaps it's time to get some alternative candidates - and a ballot measure - ready for 2011.

Geov Parrish is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on "Mind Over Matters" on KEXP 90.3 FM.[[In-content Ad]]