Afternoon Jolt

Uh-Oh, City Planners Are Challenging Seattle Neighborhood Traditions Again

Saying they don't match the city's changing demographics, Department of Neighborhoods memo questions reliance on District Councils.

By Josh Feit June 2, 2016

Jolt axth2t

Uh-oh, here comes another candid and critical assessment from city staff about Seattle's neighborhood power structure that's sure to unnerve... Seattle's neighborhood power structure, i.e., white homeowners, over 40 years old.

At yesterday's city council neighborhood committee meeting, the Department of Neighborhoods presented a preliminary report on the city's District Councils, the longstanding, default citizen voice on city neighborhood policy. The report said DON's current system for public engagement and outreach was "[set] up for failure" because of its "singular focus" on District Councils.

Seattle created 13 neighborhood districts during the 1987 neighborhood planning process. They are represented by 13 District Councils, whose members in turn, make up the City Neighborhood Council, the citizen-led advisory group that advocates for local interests at city hall.

Indicating that changes may be on the way, the memo concluded that DON was looking at expanding its outreach beyond the traditional District Councils to "create as system that is more reflective of community and more inclusive in nature" by perhaps using the city's racial equity metrics to see if focusing staff outreach efforts on District Councils is "truly benefiting" everyone. The report noted that the current District Council system focuses on communities that identify geographically, but other communities exist around "nongeographical concepts, like language, ethnicity, religious affiliation or issue-based interests."

Hitting themes similar to the race and class critique that mayor Ed Murray's HALA report brought up last year, this new memo, from Murray's neighborhood department director Kathy Nyland, said: "When you consider the entire population of Seattle residents, District Councils represent a valid, yet narrow, niche. However, they don't work for everyone... It is unclear that the existing District Council system is sufficiently flexible to meaningfully serve as a voice for all Seattle residents."

The memo includes data on 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," Nyland writes. And then the report adds: "This is in contrast to the Seattle population: Median age is 36, 34 percent are people of color...while 52 percent rent."

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"There's an overwhelming participation by folks who are homeowners, who are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, who are Caucasian," council member Rob Johnson said at yesterday's meeting, "but if you look at the demographics of [my] district, we are a much larger percentage of everything else—renters, people of color, younger folks." Johnson's District Four includes the U District. (Another practical issue: the current 13 city districts do not sync up with the newly drawn seven city council seat districts.)

The fact that the District Council approach may be off kilter, came to light because last year, during the city council's budget process, Nyland's DON was asked to assess DON's neighborhood district coordinator positions. NDCs are tasked with "outreach and engagement for Seattle residents." It's a $1.2 million city program that includes 11 full time city employees who "serve as a community liaison and resource to the District Councils, among other things..." the memo notes.

A follow-up DON report due in mid-July, will evidently spell out ways to expand outreach and engagement, so that district coordinators' roles are not simply be seen as liasons to District Councils. "DON needs to reenvision our approach to public engagement; re-think how to best connect with underrepresented communities; and retool our strategies to reach a broader cross-section of Seattle's population," the memo says.

During DON's presentation to the city council's neighborhood committee yesterday, DON staffer Tom Van Bronkhorst reiterated the draft memo's focus on the job description of DON district coordinators. Saying DON needed to "expand its outreach," beyond "a niche...largely homeowners," Van Bronkhorst said DON needed to "find ways to use our existing staff and resources in order to do that work.... And a big part of that is looking at our district coordinators and what they do for the District Councils."

Nyland herself added that in some cases "the people who aren't at the table don't even know the table exists."

The last time city bureaucrats formally recommended rebalancing the current city hierarchy that prioritizes homeowners—was in mayor Ed Murray's housing affordability and livability agenda (HALA) report. Early last July, Murray policy staffers wrote this transgressive sentence: "Single Family zoning is no longer either realistic or sustainable." That now infamous sentence segued into a HALA recommendation to open up single family zones for multifamily use as a way to upend de facto racial segregation and add a dose of affordability to the  exclusive 65 percent of the city that's zoned for single family homes. After a backlash from single family homeowners, the mayor dropped the HALA recommendation by late July.

The backlash is sure to come. "There's a lot of anxiety in the community about the loss of the District Council system and or the loss of district coordinators," West Seattle District One populist city council member Lisa Herbold, who's most closely associated with the traditional neighborhood movement, told Nyland yesterday. "I would hope, when it comes to District Councils that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." However, she acknowledged: "We need other structures of engagement, I agree, other than District Councils." Herbold, though, said the problem might be that District Councils aren't getting the direction or resources they need to be more representative. "We can do more to make District Councils more accountable and better resourced to meet our expectations that they be more representative," she said.

I have a call in to Nyland.

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