Debating 'Seattle Districts Now'

While all media focus last night was on the mayoral debate, a debate on Charter Amendment 19 -- on whether to elect council members by district -- was also unfolding at the Ballard District Council.

The Seattle Districts Now campaign seeks to interrupt the current way the city of Seattle elects councilmembers. Currently, all nine councilmembers are elected at large. The 7-2 proposal under Charter Amendment 19 would have seven councilmembers elected by district and two elected at large.

Currently, 47 of the top 50 U.S. cities (as well as the King County and Washington state governments) elect representatives by district and not at large.

The map for the districts, shown above, was created by UW Geography Professor Emeritus Dr. Richard Morrill to conform with Washington State Law -- it shows equal population districts whose boundaries conform, where possible, to recognizable geographic boundaries.

Arguing against the idea was Margie Rhodes, part of the "Choice, Not Districts" campaign, and arguing for was Cleve Stockmeyer, an attorney representing the "Seattle Districts Now" campaign. (On an interesting note, Stockmeyer was also the attorney who sued against the proposed SODO basketball arena.)

As the debate progressed, Stockmeyer seemed to be the winner, with his points clearly articulated, backed up by facts and the audience audibly agreeing with him. (Though there was no vote declaring any kind of winner.)

Stockmeyer argued that districts would create closer relationships with councilmembers, hold them more accountable and allow them to better represent the various parts of the city. In addition, districts would allow candidates with more limited means to run for office and better able to run against incumbents.

Currently, he said, council candidates must rely on big money interests to help fund their campaigns, otherwise it's too hard to reach out to the entire city.

"When you go to districts, you also open the door for a more grassroots person to run," Stockmeyer said. "You don’t need 150 thousand dollars to run. You run by knocking on doors."

District Coordinator Rob Mattson injected a historical fact, saying that a councilmember has not come out of Ballard-area district since 1968.

"I want you to ask yourself why that is," Mattson said. "Is it just because we cant muster the talent form this part of town?"

However, Jody Grage, of the 36th District Green Party, said she has never felt the neighborhood was ignored.

"I never felt Ballard was ever underrepresented in dealing with the city. I just want to say that. I think Ballard comes through loud and clear. … We certainly get our fair share of attention and face time and decisions," she said.

Rhodes raised a couple of important points as well, asking the audience not to take everything Stockmeyer said at face value.

On the question of incumbency, she said that electing by districts could in fact lead to more entrenched incumbents that could be hard to oust. She pointed to the biggest example, U.S. Congress, as an example. Currently many Congressional incumbents, particularly in the smaller districts, are nearly unbeatable in their districts.

Stockmeyer retorted by citing the incumbents in the 36th State Legislative District (which represents Ballard). He said representatives like Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, former Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson and former Rep. Helen Sommers have had such strong incumbencies because they have represented their district so well, not because they somehow fixed the elections in their favor.

Still, Stockmeyer was unable to uphold the argument that districts would make it easier to take down possibly stagnating incumbents.

Rhodes brought up the fact that Seattle Districts now was heavily bankrolled by North Seattle businesswoman Faye Garneau -- and, to a lesser extent, Fremont Dock owner Suzie Burke -- and was not necessarily a campaign "for the people" as Stockmeyer tried to make it sound.

In response, Stockmeyer listed the number of endorsements the Charter Amendment had, including the King County Democrats, 46th District Democrats, State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, former State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, State Rep. Gael Tarleton, and a number of individuals.

Stockmeyer claimed that no one had endorsed against Charter Amendment 19.

Rhodes also argued that by going to a district format, Seattle citizens would only be able to vote for three councilmembers instead of the nine they get to vote for now. This would lessen the influence citizens have on the City Council.

However, Stockmeyer didn't think Rhodes' argument held water.

"You don’t get more influence from having more people to vote for," Stockmeyer said. "You get more influence by being closer to a representative who represents you and who lives closer to you."

In a comment perhaps pandering to the very neighborhood-oriented room, Stockmeyer said, "We need a Ballard councilmember now."

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