It’s A New World Order for the Seattle City Council

Photo Credit: Wonderlane.Licensed CC-BY.
Photo Credit: Wonderlane.
Licensed CC-BY.

With the dawning of a new year comes a whole new set of problems for a city to wrestle with. In Seattle’s case, issues like affordable housing and body cameras were put on the table in the latter stages of 2014, and decisions could be forthcoming this year. And Big Bertha has become the Seattle version of Boston’s “Big Dig,” which a lot of people predicted it would.

However, one of the most intriguing stories in 2015 should still be the remodeling of the Seattle City Council. In the fall elections, all nine seats are up for grabs, broken down into seven districts and two at-large berths. Previously all council positions were citywide but that system was discarded in the 2013 elections.

While people don’t follow City Council as closely as the Mayor, legislation such as raising the minimum wage and standards for ride-share companies was not only passed but originated with the Council. Currently, the Seattle Ethics Commission reports twenty-four people have filed to run for Seattle City Council, and that number’s constantly rising. And the dynamic is already changing.

Currently, Council members are assigned to an average of three committees. All council members are part of the budget committee and there are committees that deal with energy (setting City Light rates), education, parks, libraries, police etc., along with temporary committees like the one set up to regulate Uber and other ride-share companies last year.

Often in concert with the committees, council members tend to latch on to pet projects: Kshama Sawant, raising the minimum wage; Tim Burgess, pre-school for all; Jean Godden, gender equality in wages; Bruce Harrell, cameras in police cars; Mike O’Brien, affordable housing.

However, in this system, many neighborhoods feel they’re being ignored. Especially when they read about Council members going on fancy retreats with Chamber of Commerce bigwigs. On the District 3 Facebook page—District 3 represents the Central District and Capitol Hill—someone posted the question, “Who on the City Council is the voice of the CD?”

Sawant’s the only council member who lives in District 3. A member of Socialist Alternative, Sawant’s never reserved when it comes to expressing opinions on any issue, local, national or international. But by all accounts, she doesn’t spend much (if any) time attending neighborhood meetings in her District. (However, Sawant’s supporters are quick to point out that residents in District 3 will benefit from her work on a $15 minimum wage, trying to harness City Light rates and making the 2015 City Budget more low-income friendly).

Contrast Sawant to Mian Rice, a 44-year-old restaurant owner in the Maple Leaf neighborhood. The son of former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice is running in District 5, which includes much of Northern Seattle, the only District where no current Seattle council member currently resides. Rice was interviewed by the Puget Sound Business Journal and left no doubt about his priorities. “There is so much potential (in District 5) and we need to maximize that potential.” Rice then gushed on about more sidewalks, more police protection, and prettying up Aurora Boulevard. In other words, Rice may be the face of the “new world order” when it comes to the Seattle City Council.

Of course, candidates can still run citywide in one of the two slots currently designated as Position 8 and Position 9. Council President Burgess has filed for Position 8 and Sally Clark for Position 9, ostensibly because Clark would probably lose to fellow council member Harrell in their home District 1, which represents South Seattle. However, Clark could still be the odd person out.

Nick Licata, the longest serving member of the council—he was elected in 1997—said he would probably run for a citywide seat if he ran again. Licata, who lives in District 6 (the Fremont-Ballard area), hasn’t filed for any position, but said he would announce if he were going to run again sometime this month.

Mike O’Brien also resides in District 6 but hasn’t filed for any position. Like a free-agent baseball player waiting to see what teams the other free agents sign with, O’Brien might be waiting to see what Licata does. If Licata decides to retire, O’Brien might decide to run for a citywide position. Over time, the citywide positions might become the slots where people try to make the jump into the Mayor’s office. Burgess was briefly in the 2013 mayoral race.

The Stranger SLOG ran an article that Sawant may be considering a citywide run against Clark also, but Sawant denied the story a couple of hours after it was posted. Whether it was just sending out a trial balloon or an exuberant Sawant aide recklessly speculating, many feel that Sawant would capture District 3 easily but might have a trouble in a citywide race. Running throughout the city, Sawant would face the same opposition that former Mayor Mike McGinn did—business interests and the corporate Seattle Times.

Chances are, we’ll wind up with only one or two new council members. But it’ll be a year of transition. If you’re a political junkie, fasten your seat belt and enjoy the ride.

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