Murray Proposes Severing Ties with Neighborhood Councils

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Mayor Ed Murray delivered an unpleasant surprise to some longtime neighborhood activists earlier this week when he announced, via laconic press release, that the city would sever its formal and financial ties with the 13 Neighborhood District Councils, which have advised the city on neighborhood planning since the 1990s, and create a new Community Involvement Commission to come up with new outreach strategies to include more people of color and other “historically underrepresented” communities into the planning process—including renters, who make up more than half of Seattle’s population. Currently, eight city staffers serve as neighborhood coordinators for the district councils, at a cost of more than $1.2 million a year.

Our city has changed dramatically since the district councils were created three decades ago,” Murray noted pointedly at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “Three decades ago, we communicated by picking up the phone or writing a letter. Today, through social media and the internet, we communicate through dozens of different ways. Three decades ago, communities now part of the fabric of Seattle did not live here – for example, our large East African community.” Those communities, Murray suggested, might not always find it easy to attend a meeting at 5:30 in the evening at the library, if they even know it’s happening; currently, outreach to neighborhood residents often consists of flyers left on front porches or physical mail, which can exclude renters (more likely to move, less likely to have porches) entirely.

As Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland told the city council in a memo back in May, “We have heard from residents active in the system that ‘District Councils work for us.’ … However they don’t work for everyone.”

The eight full-time staffers currently devoted to the district councils will be reassigned to other duties within the Department of Neighborhoods, Murray said. “The job description of a district coordinator has not been updated in 15 years,” he also noted. 

The need to reach out to those “underrepresented” communities—which, in addition to renters and East African immigrants and (in Murray’s words) “the person who’s cut my hair for 30 years”), also include other communities of color, LGBTQ community members, low-income residents, and people experiencing homelessness—seemed readily apparent at a meeting of the Ballard District Council a few hours after the mayor’s announcement, where onetime Southeast Seattle city council candidate Tammy Morales was the only person of color (and one of the few people with a hair color other than gray) in the room.

The meeting (like dozens and dozens of neighborhood council, community council, and district council meetings I’ve attended over the years) was mostly an echo chamber for neighborhood activists to declare themselves gobsmacked by the latest outrage from the city. The council members spent what seemed like half the two-hour meeting denouncing the city for proposing the expansion of urban villages (“the urban villages were never designed for this kind of development!”), claiming that none of the new developments will have sidewalks, parking, or other infrastructure, and insisting that of course they aren’t against density–just not this kind of density, and of course not here. Nothing could have made a stronger case for including more low-income people, non-homeowners, and, perhaps most importantly, new residents, than a room full of white-haired property owners telling each other how awful it will be to have so many new neighbors.

At city hall, the neighborhood residents who flanked Murray during his announcement were also noticeably pale-skinned—a reflection, perhaps, of haphazard planning (Murray is usually careful to gesture hard at diversity when making controversial announcements) and of the very problem DON and Murray say they hope to address: When the city puts out a call for people to show up for a press conference in the middle of the day, the people who show up are generally people without full-time jobs or with the flexibility to take a few hours off at short notice, and those people tend to be middle-class and white.

The changes, if they stick (longtime neighborhood activists have expressed shock and outrage on social media about being “left out of the process,” and a petition to recall Murray is currently being floated on Nextdoor) will represent a major triumph for DON director Nyland, a longtime neighborhood activist (in Georgetown) herself who seems determined to shake up neighborhood planning by getting new people involved, including people who are new to the city.

Longtime homeowners threw a fit when news leaked that Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda would have allowed more density in single-family areas, and Murray quickly backed off from that proposal, but on Wednesday, he insisted that wouldn’t happen this time, and that the very fact that he was signing an executive order—”I’m not going to rescind my own executive order,” he told me—demonstrated his commitment. “That’s a message to the community that this is going to happen,” Murray said. Unlike HALA, in which single-family zoning became “the hair of the tail wagging the dog,” Murray said, “What I am doing here is not something that [I am] going to back away from, because the people in the city of Seattle want this.

“You go on social media, and everyone’s angry, and you go to neighborhood meetings and everyone’s angry.” In listening to voices outside those echo chambers, though, Murray said, “I hear a city that wants to be more inclusionary and more affordable. … We cannot move forward if most of the people in this city, the diversity of this city, are not represented.”

Incidentally, when the city announced its intention to form focus groups to weigh in on HALA, the first pile of applications were dominated by homeowners from Wallingford, Ballard, and Phinney Ridge. In response, the city did a more inclusive outreach process—kind of like the inclusive outreach process Murray and DON announced Wednesday—to try to pull in people who haven’t traditionally been invited to speak. The result? More renters, immigrants, people of color, and folks from all sorts of previously sidelined communities suddenly had seats at a newly expanded table.

16 thoughts on “Murray Proposes Severing Ties with Neighborhood Councils”

  1. So, Murray’s gonna go for something more inclusive than neighborhood councils? What exactly is it gonna be?

    >>Those [Somali] communities, Murray suggested, might not always find it easy to attend a meeting at 5:30 in the evening at the library, if they even know it’s happening; currently, outreach to neighborhood residents often consists of flyers left on front porches or physical mail, which can exclude renters (more likely to move, less likely to have porches) entirely.

    Alright, so when and how is Murray going to include these folks? How do we know that he’s not just planning to do away with the public input process altogether?

  2. I’m not surprised by your account of the Ballard District Council, as I’ve sometimes heard that kind of talk at the City Neighborhood Council, and certainly on email . However it has not been that way at the Southeast District Council, but only because a number of us stood up to the takeover battle launched by Ray Akers about a decade ago and relaunched at a more subdued level a couple of years back. It is now functioning well as a community forum with real diversity, though more is still needed, also providing informal feedback to the city but avoiding big policy battles.

    My presence on the CNC has often kept the language there more respectful, but certainly there has been not been any attempt by the current leadership to develop socio-economic diversity, not even renters, even though the CNC bylaws provide a mechanism for doing that (representation from a-large groups). Certainly the whole system needs to be rejuvenated with much stronger built-in ways of accountability to the broader community in all its diversity not just homeowners intent on preserving their single family neighborhoods in a way that to me represents more the suburban model than a growing and urbanizing city.

  3. This article makes many excellent points, especially about the lack of socio-economic diversity, but there is another point: Where’s this leave “participatory democracy”? This is my take on it:

    The real issue with the district council system is how to achieve “participatory democracy”. The perfect way is not obvious, which is why I have called for a diverse public task force to take an in depth look at the problems and possible solutions.

    The city can get feedback from the many factions and interest groups by going directly to them. Yet much is lost when citizens, especially neighbors, from those different factions don’t talk to each other. This puts a much heavier burden on the city to reconcile different views or take sides, increasing distrust between the government and its citizens and likely missing some good outcomes.

    This was one of original purposes of the district councils (resolution 27709, objectives 4 and 5): “To foster cooperation and consensus among diverse interests within neighborhoods…” and “To facilitate communication between neighborhoods regarding common concerns”. I know that this can be stressful and uncomfortable at times for those involved, but that is what democracy is about. A district council that brings together these diverse groups can be at least a partial solution to these objectives, so we need to learn why the councils have sometimes worked well and not at other times.

    Therefore I urge the Seattle city council and the department of neighborhoods to commission a task force to build on what has worked, plus seek new and even better ways to foster participatory democracy in all its stress and diversity.

  4. I think it’s worth noting that the Neighborhood District Coordinators spend only a portion of their time staffing the District Councils. Much of what they do involves other types of engagement, with some of course being more successful than others. I imagine that this will also be an opportunity to reevaluate their entire approach to outreach, and hopefully to tie those efforts geographically to our new Council districts.

    I also think it’s worth noting that if this Commission is at all similar to the rest of the City’s commissions, then it will be anything but a room of ‘yes people’. The City’s commissions disagree with City electeds on a regular basis, in large part because they’ve been empowered to do so and given a voice. I expect this Community Involvement Commission will be balanced, include Mayoral and Council appointees, and may even involve some community-elected members.

    It’s definitely a step in the right direction, and thank you Erica for covering it!

  5. Seems to me that some of those 8 staff jobs could be eliminated instead of reassigned, freeing up funds for other outreach efforts.

    1. Actually, the District Coordinators do a LOT more than just support the District Councils. They’re often a great resource for both community members and City staff trying to connect with the community. I think they’re really helpful.

  6. However, those neighborhood councils elected representatives to the current all-city neighborhood council, which was an advisory group to the Mayor. That all-city neighborhood council will be replaced by a commission whose members will be appointed by the Mayor. So he will be advised by a group whose members he will choose. That doesn’t really amount to anything other than a bunch of yes people.

    1. No evidence whatsoever that the proposed new neighborhoods commission will all be appointed by the mayor. There will be some public engagement before the new structure is finalized.

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