Loss of city support raises District Council concerns

Members of the Magnolia Queen Anne District Council will readily admit that the district council system hasn’t been without its share of flaws. 

But critics of Mayor Ed Murray’s executive order to cut the city’s ties with the 13 district councils say his plan isn’t the right way to go about fixing those problems with community engagement.

In mid-July, Murray signed the order directing City departments to develop “robust community engagement plans” and take steps toward dissolving the official relationship between the City and the councils, a system created in 1987. That means that Department of Neighborhoods resources that previously supported the councils will soon be redirected to support all City departments in engagement efforts.

The timeline for the changes calls for all city departments to work with the Department of Neighborhoods on creating community involvement plans by Aug. 15, with the latter submitting a resolution to the City Council by Sept. 26 that charts out a new framework for outreach, in turn eliminating the official ties to the district councils. The move would not dissolve the councils, and they could continue to interact with the city as any other neighborhood organization would.

Carla Kotila, who represents the Friends of Magnolia Manor Park on the council, said the loss of city support in the form of the district coordinators (who will spend more time working with and responding to concerns from other community groups in their service areas) will make things much more difficult.

“These councils depend on the district coordinators,” Kotila said, “to kind of tutor the volunteer district council members on the workings of government, and how to access the city council and how to direct things to the mayor and how to look at potential projects for funding.”

Kotila noted that until now, among other roles, the councils have recommended projects for Neighborhood Park and Street Fund dollars. While she said that the overarching City Neighborhood Council — comprised of members from each district councils, is part of the equation that hasn’t worked well in recent years, it doesn’t warrant scrapping the city’s ties to the district councils.

“I think that’s part of our Seattle process and grassroots politics,” Kotila said, “where we get to have our voices heard and get credibility when we’re dealing with city agencies.”

Charles Bookman, who represents the Queen Anne Community Council on the district council and serves as vice chair, said the current issues of outreach and communication were identified in a 2009 audit of the system.

“It was a long list of things that were needed to improve the district councils and their effectiveness, and very little of that has been done,” Bookman said. “To come back and say that we’re going to walk away from this system that has produced a lot of good, because you haven’t fixed these problems — the point was made on Tuesday night [during a meeting of representatives from all the district councils in West Seattle] — that that’s as much an indictment on the Department of Neighborhoods, and the success of the administration than it is of the district councils themselves.”

While the mayor specifically critiqued the demographic makeup of the councils — citing a 2013 snapshot that found attendees to typically be over the age of 40, Caucasian, and homeowners — Bookman said those figures are misleading because those at the meetings are merely representatives from other groups as “information carriers.”

“One of the key points we made was the district councils are organizations of organizations,” he said. “It’s not a populist body, it consists of the Queen Anne Community Council and the Magnolia Community Council, and the Uptown Alliance, and the 36th District Democrats and the 36th District Republicans.”

Instead, he said, the demographic critiques should be leveled at the participating entities.

“If you wanted to study the demographics,” Bookman said, “you should study the demographics of the member organizations, not the specific individuals that said, ‘I’ll do that’ and attend a monthly meeting.”

Kotila also took issue with the mayor’s proposed Community Involvement Commission, which would be a new citywide body for engagement.

“It’s top down,” Kotila said. “It’s not grassroots, bottom up kind of feedback.”

While the district council doesn’t typically meet in August, in light of the impending changes the member organizations will meet on Aug. 15 (location to be determined) to discuss the same tenets covered in the citywide meeting: What they’ve done, what their purpose is, and what they need to do to be more effective.

“We need help,” Bookman said. “We need facilitation. We need communication. We need people who know how to use social media to help us get the people who are not participating involved. We don’t need to be thrown out. The phrase ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ has been used, and it is very appropriate.”

For more information on the mayor’s executive order, visit www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/equitable-outreach-and-engagement.