Kathy Nyland, Who Worked to Make City’s Neighborhood Department More Inclusive, Is Out

Late last Friday afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she is replacing Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland with Andres Mantilla, a veteran of the Nickels Administration who worked as a political consultant for the firm Ceis Bayne East before joining the new administration as an external-relations advisor in November. Mantilla, who responded to my questions about his plans for the department by directing me to Durkan’s communication office, has reportedly proposed reorganizing DON, perhaps by subsuming some of its wide-ranging duties—which include everything from the P-Patch program to historic preservation to funding for small neighborhood projects—into other departments such as the Office of Planning and Community Development and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.

Durkan’s decision to remove Nyland—who has been assigned a new job as “senior advisor” somewhere in the parks department—wasn’t entirely unexpected (Nyland had been on tenterhooks for nearly six months), but it should disappoint anyone who liked what the city hall change agent was doing at DON. Although the Murray administration will be forever tarnished by the scandal that forced him from office, Nyland was the brains and the muscle behind one of the administration’s real achievements: Empowering people who are not traditional neighborhood activists to participate in neighborhood planning and define and shape Seattle’s changing communities. Nyland’s efforts to make DON more inclusive and responsive to people outside the traditional neighborhood power structure met with staunch resistance from both inside and outside the department, including traditional neighborhood activists who viewed community input as a zero-sum game. Nyland’s mission at the department was to prove, as she often put it, that inclusion (of renters, people of color, people who work for wages and can’t attend daytime meetings) isn’t the same thing as “silencing” the people who have dominated neighborhood conversations for decades.

Durkan’s reason for removing Nyland now—and for keeping her on at the city, instead of simply cutting her loose as she has other department heads—is unclear. (In her announcement Friday, Durkan had only praise for the outgoing director). What is clear is that Nyland has had a target on her back since at least 2016, when she rejected a move by the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation Board to grant historic-landmark status to a 107-year-old parking garage on Alaskan Way at the behest of neighboring condo owners who would have lost their views to a new 200-apartment development on the waterfront. (Nyland’s decision to overturn the preservation board’s ruling was later overturned by a city hearing examiner.)

Later that same year, at Murray’s behest, Nyland cut formal and financial ties with the city’s 13 neighborhood district councils, which had served as informal advisory bodies since the 1990s. The councils, which have generally opposed density and whose members often characterize renters as “transients” with little investment in their neighborhoods, are mostly made up of older white homeowners, and are not representative of an increasingly diverse Seattle where half the residents are renters. The district councils continued to exist, but no longer receive city funding; instead, under Nyland’s leadership, the city  funded a 16-member Community Involvement Commission and charged it with helping city departments improve their outreach to all city residents, including underrepresented communities such as low-income people, homeless residents and renters.

Back in 2017, Nyland told me that her mission was to help dismantle “systems… that are not easy to navigate,” especially for people outside established neighborhood groups. “What if someone works at night? What if someone has kids and can’t get a babysitter? What if someone can’t speak English? What if someone just didn’t know about the meetings? They’re not making a choice not to come. They can’t come!” Nyland said.

Unsurprisingly, Nyland’s dedication to inclusiveness riled the old-guard neighborhood movement—and Durkan has appeared responsive to their complaints. During the campaign, Durkan talked about “bringing back the district councils”—which, again, were not dismantled—and said she thinks “the city has quit listening to the neighborhoods’ needs.” This, as Nyland pointed out long before Durkan was elected, is a false narrative. Inclusion, in all areas of public life, doesn’t mean silencing the people who have traditionally dominated the conversation. It means that their voices no longer get to be the only ones in the room.

While it’s unclear whether Nyland’s ouster was hastened by complaints from traditional neighborhood activists, the move is hardly an encouraging message to renters, immigrants, and other marginalized communities who felt that Nyland was making progress toward opening up the city to everyone, not just the people who show up at every meeting and shout the loudest—and that she still had a lot of work to do.

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11 thoughts on “Kathy Nyland, Who Worked to Make City’s Neighborhood Department More Inclusive, Is Out”

  1. The neighborhood councils kept suing the city… I would have disbanded them too.

    We already have a democratic process to elect the city council via district, so I have to question what value neighborhood councils bring aside from being a platform that is easy for NIMBY’s to dominate.

    Maybe if neighborhood council elections were actually on the ballot. Most people don’t even know they exist and they aren’t remotely democratic.

  2. When Murray came into office he promised a “neighborhood summit”, which was her first big project.
    Activists, always retaining a bit of optimism, were certain to attend to see what the new team had in mind.

    Those who heard a diversity of ideas for how the event could have been held are aware of the magnitude of opportunity that was missed in the design that was chosen.
    Other events of the Murray era resembled that event.

  3. In 2009, the City paid for an audit of the Neighborhood and District Council system. Their report would be good reading for the new DON director or a reporter. Based on interviews with the Neighborhood Councils, we acknowledged our shortcomings and requested city funds for interpreters, translators and website support. This wasn’t funded because…remember the Great Recession?

    Rather than help us become more inclusive, Nyland cut us off, shamed and mischaracterized us. She asserted we were selfish because we didn’t represent the average age of Seattleites, 36. But that includes children–not part of the civic audience. The average age of Seattle voters is 46, according to King County elections. Given the lack of interest of most 20-somethings in voting and local politics, the Neighborhood Councils are a reasonable approximation of the potential audience. Providing childcare and interpreters would help.

    Nyland conducted her own experiment in civic inclusion when she created 6 HALA focus groups, hand-picked to include 50% renters, many people of color and to exclude anyone who lives outside the boundaries of an urban village–a means of excluding most Neighborhood activists. The focus groups were manipulated to disallow and ignore any critique of the upzones. The participants protested by dropping out, as over 3/4 did before the 6-month experiment was up. To my knowledge, DON is still claiming this as an outreach success.

    DON also brags about not holding any more Town Hall meetings, a 350-year old tradition in our democracy. I heard many people grumble when they showed up to the HALA upzone DON District outreach meetings with tabling and posters, but no speakers and no City accountability. This feels patronizing as hell, to me. Everything there is posted online. Last Saturday at New Holly, few bothered.

    What the Neighborhoods are asking for is a seat at the planning table. We are tired of being ignored (as in the 35th Ave. NE road diet project) and being kicked to the curb–where we have curbs. Yes, we need to be more inclusive. As volunteers, we could use some help.

  4. I liked Nyland on a personal level when I had a lengthy conversation with her at a community gathering. I understand the consternation from community groups who have been defunded. Agree that there should be increased efforts to accommodate those in the community that would like to add their voice but cannot.

    However defunding the all volunteer community councils was overreach. Putting a target on and criticizing community members who spend their free time volunteering to help with city planning is just wrong.

    Wishing Kathy the best in her new role.

  5. While I think Kathy Nyland’s decision to defund the neighborhood councils was a sound and bold one, I entirely disagree that her tenure at the Dept of Neighborhoods was any kind of beacon for immigrants, renters, and marginalized groups. She spoke the language of equity and inclusion (which actually seems like a basic requirement for people in political power in Seattle right now) but I did not see her walking the talk, especially within her internal management of the department.

  6. Unlike the neighborhood council’s who actually do stuff, the Community Involvement Commission basically went a year doing nothing. Did they do anything? Wasn’t making sure the department made a difference or that group did something for us as residents of Seattle Kathy’s responsibility? I checked their website and it looks like half of the people who started on that group quit, or did they secretly get removed they way she dealt with staff she didn’t like? If she was so great why do staff dislike her and what happened to those people who quit her commission?

  7. Nyland was a paranoid, inexperienced and insufferable manager who fired, demoted, berated and reassigned staff that dared disagreed. If you were one of her favorite handpicked employees (of which there are many, even hiring a dozen since the election) you were protected – as long as you didnt cross her. Long time, professional staff were treated like disposable laborers who were outcasted personally while being micromanaged to the point of anger/tears. Good riddance to her and (soon) her dozens of pencil pushing bureaucrats that add little to the department’s original mission. We need a Dept of Neighborhoods focused on making NEIGHBORHOODS and community connections stronger. Get them out of City Hall and back out here where they belong.

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