City Council

Please, We’d Rather Elect One Ourselves

Fed-up Southeast Seattleites join the fight to bring back district elections.

By Eric Scigliano July 14, 2009

A posting last week noted that West Seattle, once a civic orphan, is becoming a power neighborhood—home to Mayor Nickels and prospective county executive Dow Constantine, not to mention Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis and Seattle Transportation Director Grace Crunican. But having residents in top spots at City Hall doesn’t necessarily translate into representation there. Four of nine current Seattle City Council members live in Southeast Seattle, but Southeasters complain more than residents any other quadrant about neglect and unfair treatment in everything from police to traffic signals to schools. And don’t get them started about the new light rail line cleaving the district.

Southeast is home base of a new Action Seattle effort to amend Seattle’s city charter so that five of nine city councilmembers would be elected by district. (Four would continue to be elected at large; a measure to establish district-only elections failed in 2003.) “We just want one who will be a voice for Southeast Seattle,” says computer consultant Pat Murakami, who’s spearheading the petition from her office near the new McClellan Street rail station. She says it’s a “citywide effort” but concedes that a “disproportionate number” of volunteers and signatories live in West Seattle, Southeast, and Ballard (which has its own gripes with city land use and transportation policies). They don’t expect to get enough signatures to make the ballot this year, so they’re planning for 2011. (City-sponsored measures can run anytime, but citizen initiatives must wait till odd years.)

Seattle switched to at-large, nonpartisan elections in 1910, the heyday of Progressive Era reforms, and it’s repelled repeated attempts to switch back. But many other cities have returned to district elections, including, according to Murakami, 47 of the 50 largest use. She contends that districts assure more equal and attentive representation and make entry easier for candidates; it costs much more to run citywide. Defenders of at-large races counter that districts can produce entrenched incumbents—what used to be called ward bosses—with parochial views.

One at-large advocate, Seattle Councilmember Tim Burgess, notes that a total of 16 candidates are contesting four at-large City Council seats this year, while only seven have filed for five King County Council seats, which are elected by district. “More candidates doesn’t mean better,” snorts Murakami.

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