The death of neighborhood councils, told by Wallingford

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Earlier this year, I called Wallingford Community Council member Eric Fisk to talk about the demise of the Wallyhood neighborhood blog. We did, but we also spoke about his perception – shared by many in his leafy craftsman’s paradise – that City Hall was completely disconnected from neighborhoods.

“The mayor has not yet visited Wallingford since he was elected,” complained Fisk in January. “He’s like the George W. Bush of mayors.”

Last week it became clear that the mistrust between the mayor and neighborhood officials could very well be mutual when Ed Murray’s office announced on Wednesday that it was severing ties with the 13 community councils, which for decades, have served as a staging post for town hall for places like Wallingford. , Greenwood and Rainier Beach. Murray instead plans to create a new “community engagement commission”. The mayor’s office said a final plan for the framework will be presented to city council on September 26.

“The contempt this mayor has shown for neighborhoods is truly mind-boggling, and I really hope that means he becomes mayor for a term,” Fisk wrote to me Thursday when I asked him about the news. “Eliminating district councils is just one more step in preventing people without a politician in their pocket from having a say in what our government does. ”

But while Murray’s decision played into the narrative that Town Hall is disrespectful to neighborhood activists, it also shed light on another, less complementary perception of community councils: that they are enclaves of the wealthy. White landlords who can be downright hostile to tenants, especially low-income tenants — of NIMBY strongholds who are a barrier to civic engagement, not a shortcut.

“Our city has changed dramatically since our district council system was created three decades ago, and over time we have seen them become less and less representative not only of their neighborhoods but of Seattle itself,” Murray said when announcing his decision. “For immigrants and refugees, low-income residents, communities of color, renters, single parents, youth, homeless people, LGBTQ people and more, the system has become a barrier today. so that many get involved in the city’s decision-making process. . “

This dynamic was also present at Wallingford. In May, Doug Trumm, a strong proponent of denser development in Seattle and editor of the Town planner blog, wrote a short article on the website titled “How I Got Left Out of Wallingford Community Council”. In it, Trumm recounts that he ran unopposed for one of the seven council seats, that is, until election night. He later found out that some Wallingford residents recruited a last-minute opponent by alerting on Facebook that Trumm was “a very active blogger for the Town planner. “He was the only candidate to face opposition, and during a question-and-answer session before the vote, a member of the community asked him why he had moved ‘to such an expensive city and then asked taxpayers to help? a reference to the perception that urban housing policies were designed to subsidize low-income tenants (Fisk said the question asked was “inappropriate” and said it should not be used to reflect the positions of the board.)

While the question was based on a false premise – Trumm says he pays market rate rent for his apartment – he says it shows how hostile advice can be to people who are not landlords. established. “I had attended a meeting before that, and it ended up being a review of what they had spent their time on last year. It turned out that they had spent most of their time talking about parking, about people moving in and taking their places – they say ‘their’ place, even if they are in the public road ”, to me. said Trumm. “Parking is definitely a problem, don’t get me wrong, but it has become a scapegoat to say these[high-density] the projects are bad for the neighborhood.

Trumm stressed that he sees a lot of good work being done by Wallingford Council. But he said his experience illustrates the dynamics of councils that speak ostensibly for an entire neighborhood. “They tend to be homeowners, so they obviously belong to a class that can afford a $ 500,000 house – or if they recently bought in Wallingford, close to a million dollars,” he says.

Studies confirm the perception that Seattle’s community councils do not reflect the diversity of the city as a whole. As Murray’s office pointed out when announcing its decision, a 2013 study found that district council meetings tend to attract people over 40 who are white and own their own homes. “At least six district councils had not reported any presence of people of color, and only three district councils reported African-American participants,” the press release said.

A report released by the Neighborhoods Department on Friday reiterated these points and went further by suggesting that the city is placing too much emphasis on geographic neighborhoods at the expense of ethnic and problem-based communities.

Fisk says in his email that Murray “is correct that district councils do not attract a large and diverse audience.” But he argued it was a natural consequence of what the councils do. “District councils are about the depth, not the extent of the community’s contribution,” he wrote. “You have to commit and have the time in a way that most people don’t have to spend a year obsessing over the design and location of a crosswalk. The purpose of the district councils is to give these people and the leaders of neighborhood organizations a real say in what happens to their neighborhoods… It is the only real power left to the neighborhoods of Seattle.

Although Murray did not use the acronym in his press release announcing the decision, the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA, is at the heart of much of the angst. A so-called “big deal” that aims to tackle soaring housing costs in Seattle through means other than rent control, the plan’s focus on higher density development in neighborhoods has been greeted with great skepticism by people like Fisk. From this perspective, Murray’s announcement was clearly seen as a way to silence policy criticism.

“The time is right,” an Eastlake activist wrote on Facebook criticizing the news, “… when [the city] is about to release its proposals to blow the lid off development standards ”as part of the affordability agenda.

Fisk echoed this sentiment, stating categorically, “It is being done because neighborhood groups oppose him on HALA.”

Murray’s communications director Jeff Reading said Thursday that HALA did not provide the reasons for the mayor’s decision, but said the two issues were linked. “HALA concerns neighborhoods, and the community involvement commission that it is setting up will also focus on neighborhoods. The whole point of this is to expand the number of voices “involved in these discussions, Reading said.

However, from a political point of view, the mayor’s decision does not seem very promising to ease tensions with those who already oppose his growth policy. “Honestly, I feel it, I understand it,” Trimm said when asked if it was possible to dig a hornet’s nest with the decision to dissolve the councils. “I don’t know. Looks like they can turn anything into an affront.


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