Members of Seattle’s 13 neighborhood district councils met Wednesday in Delridge to slam mayor Ed Murray’s recent executive order to end formal ties between the city and the councils. Mayor Murray signed a July 13 executive order that aims to implement more inclusive outreach practices for communities “underrepresented” by the district councils.
A recent city report tallied the average age, the race breakdown, and the “Living Situation” (i.e., own or rent) of 150 District Council members. “Residents attending District Council meetings tend to be 40 years of age or older, Caucasian, and homeowners,” the recent Department of Neighborhoods report said. And then the report added: “This is in contrast to the Seattle population: Median age is 36, 34 percent are people of color...while 52 percent rent.”
It wasn't the GOP convention, but emotions were running high last night as members of the district councils—groups established in 1987 to help guide the city's neighborhood planning—took the stage for two hours, mostly saying the mayor and the Department of Neighborhoods neglected to get input from the district councils before making the dramatic decision.
The meeting took place at the Highland Park Improvement Club in West Seattle—a small neighborhood facility with a single box fan instead of air conditioning. A crowd of about 120 people, mostly older, white homeowners from all the councils, took turns attacking the executive order. District council members in the crowded room sat like convention delegates among their respective neighborhood districts, marked by cardboard signs with each district’s name drawn in crafty magic marker.
Seattle city council member Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle and who is openly sympathetic with the district council cause, briefly attended the meeting, standing in the back before she had to attend another meeting to support the affordable housing levy.
Representing the Delridge neighborhood district council at the meeting, Amanda Kay Helmick said the district councils would have worked with Murray and the DON in reaching out to diverse communities if they were given the support and funding they were needed from the get-go. She said district councils try their best with the resources they have to represent everyone in their neighborhoods.
“I have a real problem with the fact that I’m doing real work in my neighborhood for those people that don’t get represented, and then I’m getting vilified for it,” Helmick said.
DON Strategic Advisor Tom Van Bronkhorst, who was also on hand last night (though he wasn't invited nor was he asked to speak) bore the brunt of many of the attacks at the meeting. Helmick addressed him directly, saying, “the mayor hired [Bronkhorst] to come in and chainsaw our organization and put words in our mouth with no intention of listening to us.”
Bronkhorst, who seemed unfazed by the finger pointing, told me he tried his best to hear the councils' concerns beforehand by meeting with all the district council chairs and visiting council meetings. Before the executive order was issued, Bronkhorst said he asked the district councils how DON could support them better and what they wanted their relationship with DON to be.
“Basically, they said, ‘we like it the way it is—it works,’” Bronkhorst said. “And it does. It worked for them.”
Bronkhorst said he admires the passion and energy of the district councils and hopes to continue talking with them about ways the DON can support their needs. He also said he hopes the district councils will continue to meet and support their own communities even if their formal ties are severed with the city.
“We want to empower community councils,” Bronkhorst said. “Their communities need [their support] and Seattle needs that. We just want to expand that to other communities as well.”
Bronkhorst said Murray and the DON tried to understand both sides of the argument before signing the executive order after “looking at the issue for years.”
However, many members of the district councils at the meeting felt like they were out of the loop when it came to all discussions about adding diverse representation to the neighborhoods.
“He’s not looking at anything; he killed the system,” said Dan Sanchez, chair of the Central Area District Council. “He’s not trying to engage anyone. Our own district representatives didn’t even know about the [executive order] press conference.”
Many members of the district councils expressed their desire to continue holding meetings with representatives from all of the 13 district councils to continue to discuss their future after the executive order and fight for their voice in community decisions.
“This city works where the squeaky wheels get the grease,” Helmick said. “The people that complain the loudest, the people that show up and write mails and all of those things—those are the people that get paid attention to. Everybody else that has been here since the beginning gets ignored.”
For its part, DON says it will conduct focus groups inviting community input on a new outreach and engagement framework.