Council members vote to hire more legislative staff, sort of

This afternoon the City Council voted to allow for expansion of their personal legislative staff. Their counter-intuitive reason for doing so points to a larger problem.

The change, sponsored by Council President Bruce Harrell, is a change to a 1997 ordinance that sets a cap on each Council member’s legislative staff to three. Today’s change would increase that to four — at least in theory.

It’s a theoretical change, one that isn’t going to cause an immediate hiring spree, because it doesn’t increase the Council members’ individual budgets. Members have a fixed budget but great flexibility in how they choose to spend it: on staff, on a district office, on consultants, etc. Today a Council member who wants to hire one more legislative assistant will need to find the money to pay that person from somewhere else in her/his budget.

Of course the Council members will try to increase their budgets as well. Council member Tim Burgess, the sole vote in opposition to the change and also the chair of the Budget Committee, sees it coming and said so in today’s meeting. He also pointed out that when Seattle citizens voted to switch the Council from nine city-wide positions to a hybrid of seven district-based positions and two all-city ones, the City Auditor looked at other comparable cities’ staffing models and found that none of them had more than three legislative staff members per Council member. Burgess also pegged the additional cost for nine additional staff members (one per Council member) at around $500,000.

Plus, it’s counter-intuitive that a Council member who now represents only one-seventh of the city instead of the entire city would need more staff, rather than less.

Council members Lisa Herbold and Debora Juarez, who hold district-based positions (unlike Burgess whose seat is city-wide), were the vocal proponents for the change this afternoon. Herbold explained that the switch to districts has increased the constituents’ expectations for access to, and responses from, their Council member. She noted that she can no longer pass off issues raised by someone in her district that are outside her purview to another Council member; for example, “my staff is expected to be experts on parks issues when those parks issues are related to District 1.” She claimed that she and her staff spend a lot of time on transportation, another geographically-based issue, and they are doing a lot of work on “triage” to get constituents answers.

Juarez took the point further, claiming that when voters passed the initiative switching the Council to seven districts, it was because “the voters wanted someone to advocate for them, while keeping in mind the greater good of the city of Seattle.” She rattled off a long list of issues she and her staff have needed to deal with in their first 100 days on the job, saying “you can’t expect three people to be expert in all that.”

Harrell closed the conversation by pointing out that the Council’s staff has been growing over the years anyway, and largely this change simply codifies a practice already in place. He also noted to his fellow Council members, “You are not required to hire anyone. You are not required to spend your budget.”

The underlying argument here isn’t simply that there is more work for district-based Council members to do; it’s that there is a new kind of work that needs to be done in addition to all the old work. Juarez stated that the voters of Seattle want an advocate, or perhaps more accurately some cross between an ombudsman and a tour guide, to lead them (and fight for them) through the jungle that is the Seattle bureaucracy. And therein lies the problem, because the nine City Council members are in the wrong branch of government to be filling that role. The City Council has three roles: write laws, pass a budget, and provide oversight for the Executive Branch. Sure, it’s critical for the Council members to hear directly from constituents on potential and pending legislation, particularly on issues that have a district flavor such as zoning, transportation, and parks. Additionally as part of executive branch oversight they should also be hearing where people’s greatest “pain points” are with city services. But the more they need to get involved in helping people navigate city services, the more it highlights the extent to which the Executive Branch is dropping the ball.

The City runs seven Customer Service Centers spread throughout the city, which are supposed to be “little city halls” where

… you can go to find information about Seattle services and programs. In addition, they provide payment and information services with customer service representatives assisting more than 225,000 residents each year to obtain pet licenses, pay City Light and Combined Utility bills, pay traffic tickets, apply for U.S. passports (except the downtown SMT Customer Service Center), or to find information about City of Seattle jobs.

Which begs the question: what’s the difference between Rob Johnson’s district office and the Neighborhood Service Center just down the street in the U District? And the obvious follow-up question: do the residents of Seattle understand the difference?

As for the legislative branch duties, what is the point of having Council committees with chairs if every Council member needs to be expert on every topic? Rather than feed that expectation, shouldn’t the Council set clear expectations as to what issues people should bring to them — and which ones should be taken to another Council member or directly to a city department? What would happen if those nine new positions were used to staff up the Neighborhood Service Centers rather than Council members’ legislative staff?

The idea that the city bureaucracy is difficult to parse and navigate is nothing new; Mayor Murray himself has noted that his biggest challenge has been to break down the silos between departments that get in the way of effective communication and cooperation. If Seattleites have given up on the executive branch and are using their Council members as a surrogate to solve their problems, then Murray is failing. Nine more legislative assistants will not fix that, nor will increasing the overlap between the legislative and executive branches.

In the rush to hire more staff, the Council should stop to consider why the citizens of Seattle feel such a strong need for an advocate in city government — and what the best way is to address that need.