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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