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Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - Page updated at 07:30 a.m.

Push to create Seattle council districts moves closer to ballot

By Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times staff reporter

A group that wants most Seattle City Council members elected by district rather than citywide is expected to submit enough signatures Tuesday to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

Seattle Districts Now plans to turn in about 47,000 signatures to the City Clerk’s Office for a measure that would elect seven council members by geographic district and two at-large. About 31,000 valid signatures are required to qualify a charter amendment for a vote.

“Our goal is to bring government closer to the people.” said Eugene Wasserman, one of the campaign’s organizers. “The current council members talk to interest groups and other bureaucrats. They don’t talk to the people.”

The campaign has raised about $157,000, most of it from Faye Garneau, a North Seattle businesswoman who opposed a $60 car-tab measure last year. Most of the campaign money has gone to paid signature-gatherers to qualify the measure for the ballot.

Seattle voters have rejected district elections several times, most recently in 2003. Civic groups such as the Municipal League and the League of Women Voters opposed that plan, saying it would place narrow, neighborhood interests above the good of the entire city.

Previous attempts also didn’t draw up the proposed districts, so voters were unsure where the boundaries would be and they didn’t trust politicians to do it, Wasserman said.

Supporters say the current proposal addresses some of the previous misgivings. Two seats would remain at-large and would be elected by the entire city. The remaining seven would be elected by district.

Demographer Richard Morrill, a University of Washington professor emeritus, divided the city into seven geographic districts each with roughly 88,000 people, so voters would know in advance what the districts would look like.

The goal is to make it easier and more affordable for grass-roots candidates to run for office, because they would have to reach only a portion of residents, not the entire city, Wasserman said. And he said council members would be more knowledgeable about local problems and more responsive to their individual communities.

Wasserman said that of the 50 largest cities in the country, just three don’t have some form of district elections — Seattle, Portland and Columbus, Ohio.

But the proposal is drawing opposition from some progressive and labor groups that typically support district elections as a way to increase diversity among elected officials.

Critics say the proposed map creates only one district — Southeast Seattle — in which minorities would be in the majority. And some of the most dense neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill, Queen Anne and the University District, are divided among three different council districts, raising concerns that the divisions favor single-family homeowners over apartment and condo dwellers.

“We generally support the concept of district elections, but not a Craftsman homeowner-empowerment act,” said David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 775 NW.

Earlier this year, SEIU proposed an alternative map to the Seattle Districts Now map that would have created two or three districts with a majority of minority residents, Rolf said. But the advocates said the suggestions were made late, after their own districts already were finalized.

Rolf said that while he senses an appetite in the city for some change in how council members are elected, his union instead supports public campaign financing, a second election proposal before the City Council.

That measure, which aims to make council races more affordable to newcomers by providing a city match to individual contributions at a $6-to-$1 ratio, might also be on the November ballot.

“Seattle is increasingly diverse, both racially and economically. That’s never really been reflected in council elections,” Rolf said.

David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, said labor may be divided over the council-district elections proposal.

“In terms of democratic empowerment, we support the concept of district elections. But we’ve been frustrated by the resistance to density and transit-oriented development among single-family neighborhoods. There’s concern that this proposal could strengthen that resistance,” Freiboth said.

Supporters of district elections include some longtime advocates for the poor who are dismayed by the early opposition of other progressives. John Fox, leader of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, an advocacy organization for low-income housing, said research has consistently found that cities with district elections have more minority representation than those without.

Currently, just one member of the Seattle City Council is a minority, although about 30 percent of the city is nonwhite.

Under the Seattle Districts Now proposal, all nine council members would be on the ballot in 2015 — the seven district seats for four-year terms, and the two at-large seats for initial two-year terms. That would put the two at-large council members in the same four-year election cycles as the other citywide offices of mayor and city attorney starting in 2017.

Garneau, who has bankrolled the ballot measure to date, said the cost of running citywide for council has risen to an average of almost $270,000, which she described as an “obnoxious amount.”

To reach voters in just one geographic district, she said, would cost far less and attract more young candidates and more community leaders.

“We need some young blood in Seattle politics,” she said. “People should be encouraged to run, not discouraged.”

Some material from

The Seattle Times archives was included in this report.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or

On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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