Reforming Seattle’s Broken Neighborhood Engagement System

These community members have overcome the barriers to participating in the current system to make their voices heard. Now, the City is trying to reform its outreach to bring everyone into the conversation.

These community members have overcome the barriers to participating in the current system to make their voices heard. Now, the City is trying to reform its outreach to bring everyone into the conversation.

 

Since the late ’80s, District Councils have been the City’s primary means of implementing citizen participation in the political process. The Councils are responsible for recommending local projects to the Mayor and City Council for Neighborhood Matching Fund grants. These District Councils also receive the lion share of DON staff support from 8 district coordinators.

As Director of the Department of Neighborhoods (DON), Kathy Nyland recently facilitated an evaluation of the City’s current engagement strategies—chiefly the district council system—and found a profound gap in representation. The demographics of the people currently serving on Seattle’s 13 District Councils are in remarkable contrast to the actual make-up of their communities (explained in this article from Seattle Met summarizing DON’s findings).

In her evaluation, Nyland explains that “Seattle’s population demographics are changing and DON needs to re-envision our approach to public engagement; re-think how to best connect with underrepresented communities; and retool our strategies to reach a broader cross-section of Seattle’s population, including ethnic and cultural groups, seniors, youth, home-owners, and renters.”

Nyland recognizes that the voices of many communities are not being heard under the current methods of outreach. “Many District Council members choose to define “community” as neighborhoods that are geographically based, leaving out those who build and experience community around non-geographical concepts, like language, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or issue-based interests.”

This is an important finding, because if the City’s current system of community engagement is taking recommendations from groups of people that do not speak for the breadth of voices in their neighborhood, then it is failing its fundamental objective to “promote, support, and involve citizen participation at the neighborhood level” as stated in Resolution 27709, the legislation that created the District Council system.

 

Mayor Murray will sign an executive order today to retool the Department of Neighborhoods’ community outreach strategy and ditch the District Council system in favor of what he is calling the “Community Involvement Commission” (covered here by Josh Feit). This is a great time to get involved and help shape the new systems from the ground up.

For other perspectives on the current system: here is a piece by local blogger Erica Barnett that discusses District Council power dynamics in relation to HALA; here is an article by former mayor Michael McGinn touching upon a bit of everything; finally, here is information from the City about the structure of the neighborhood involvement system in Seattle.