City backpedals on dissolving ties with District Councils

In the latest reverse for the Murray Administration, the Department of Neighborhoods is now singing a different tune on District Councils and says that they will continue to receive some level of support.

For years there have been complaints that the DC’s do not represent the demographics of Seattle’s residents, and a 2009 auditor’s report confirmed that. Last fall, the Council asked the DON to look at what the newly-established seven City Council districts mean for the pre-existing and overlapping thirteen District Council districts, and whether there was a rationalization of the two that should happen. DON took that as an opportunity to put forth a broad plan to cut ties with the DC’s and start over.

In July, the Mayor announced that he was issuing an executive order directing the Department of Neighborhoods (DON) to devise a new plan for community engagement, in so doing “dissolving the City’s ties to each of the thirteen district councils.”

The response from the District Councils, who had been given no warning of this announcement, was immediate and furious. In defense of the District Councils, over the years the city resources in place to support them have been cut while represeting their increasingly-diverse communities has become more difficult. They complain that they have been set up to fail. Many DC’s claim they have been asking for, among other things, resources to translate materials into multiple languages in order to reach a broader audience but have been rebuffed.

But last Wednesday morning, at the end of a marathon meeting of the Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods and Finance Committee, DON Director Kathy Nyland and one of her lieutenants, Tom Van Bronkhorst, backed off the plan to completely sever ties — though there was a dizzying amount of double-talk and spin as they pleaded that the plan they put forward had simply been misunderstood. They had no intention, they said, of getting rid of DC’s; they simply needed to shift some of their department’s scarce resources to other efforts to bring in more voices.

Said Van Bronkhorst:

“There’s been some concern that we should be fixing district councils and … providing them resources to improve or be better, and I think that’s absolutely something that we want to do. I think that’s something that’s a part of the plan. But it’s not just about district councils. It’s about all those other organizations out there that are coming up that want to participate, that we need to reach out to and engage. So it’s in addition to, as opposed to a replacement of. District Councils have a future. Community Councils certainly have a future. District Councils now are determining how they want to proceed forward in relationship to, with their needs and how they want to reflect, and that’s great and we’d like to see that. There is also the issue that came up about staffing and how we used our rather limited staffing for the Department of Neighborhoods. And the Department has experienced a broadening and expanding scope in our business model and our business needs,  and with the limited staffing that we have … it became clear that we wanted to reallocate some of the resources, particularly with our outreach and engagement, to pursue some of those other business needs…”

Nyland added:

“So I do think this is a great opportunity to clarify what this is and what it isn’t… So what this is, is taking an equitable approach to outreach and engagement, and it’s not taking away chairs, it’s bringing more chairs to the table. It’s knowing there are groups that exist who are doing phenomenal work and continuing to support them, but also making sure we support other groups. It’s looking at what groups exist as well as understanding some communities don’t have the capacity to mobilize. So it’s giving us flexibility to allocate our resources where they’re wanted and needed. We talk about a lot of the opportunities for people to participate, which is great. We want to broaden those and make sure more people can participate on their own timeline from their own locations. So we are not disbanding, we are not dissolving, we’re not disengaging, we’re actually sharing and wanting to build capacity and to create more opportunities to participate. So that’s what this is about. It’s about equity, and equity is about fairness. And just as Tom said, there is no one representative body, that would be far too much pressure. What works for some isn’t going to work for all.  So we don’t want to take away what’s working for some, we want to add to what works for more.”

Council member Tim Burgess bought their pitch. His response in the hearing:

“It’s unfortunate that when you first announced all of this, whether you did that the best way or not, we won’t get into that, but it immediately caused people to circle the wagons and become very defensive, but as we have learned more, as I have learned more about what your ultimate goal is, it’s not about pushing people away, it’s actually about allowing more people to come into the process and I think that’s laudable. I think change is often difficult for all of us, you know, at one level or another depending on what the change is, but this is a positive initiative, this is an initiative that is saying to all of the people of Seattle ‘we want to be more sensitive and make sure we listen to you.’ It’s not exclusionary. We’re not trying to say that district councils should be abandoned. You’ve never said that actually.

Actually, they did. While the official response to the Council’s original request does focus on bringing a broader set of voices into the community input process and does not explicitly say “we are dissolving District Councils,” the Mayor’s announcement in July said:

 Murray’s executive order directs City departments to begin developing robust community engagement plans, and takes steps toward dissolving the City’s ties to each of the thirteen district councils. The district councils may still exist, but Department of Neighborhoods’ resources that previously supported the district councils will be redirect to support all City departments in these efforts.

And the DON’s July response to the Council says that the department wants to reconsider the role of Neighborhood District Coordinators, the only DON staff who provide direct support to the DC’s:

Determine the official role, if any, between District Councils and our current NDC’s. This includes defining what “support” means so we are more consistent in services that are provided. 

Despite their protestations to the contrary, The Mayor and the Department of Neighborhoods really did announce that they were looking to cut off the District Councils. It would have been refreshing to hear them admit that they had a change of heart rather than argue that this was never their intent. And let’s all pause to enjoy the irony that the city department with central responsibility and expertise for gathering community input failed to do so on the biggest change it’s seen in decades, and refuses to admit that they’ve reconsidered their plan based on community input.

All that said, while it’s good news to the District Councils that they get to live on with at least some level of support, Nyland made clear that her department will be taking a “tough love” approach. She will look to communicate clear expectations to the DC’s as to the level of representation and outreach that they will need to provide going forward, and that there will be accountability. She spoke to her own past experience as a District Council chair to make the case for raising the bar while ensuring that DC’s feel like they are getting the support they need:

“And I have to say, I bring a certain perspective because I was chair of my District Council. I was chair of the CNC, and every time I would go to those meetings I knew I was very fortunate that I had the time and the ability to go to those meetings, and I knew that so many people in my community needed me to go so they felt connected. It was my responsibility sitting in that chair to go back and share that information. And I think that’s part of the accountability. If you are able to sit in this chair, it’s an honor and here’s what we need and here’s what we expect and here’s what we want. But it’s a big ask to get into that chair and it’s a commitment and we need to make it easier and more equitable.”

If you enjoy watching people squirm, here’s a link to the meeting (jump to 2:23:15) where you can see Nyland and Van Bronkhorst struggle to explain how supporting the DC’s was part of their plan all along, while avoiding to quantify any commitment to resources even under direct questioning from Council member Herbold.

The Mayor’s executive order instructed Nyland to prepare a resolution for Council approval that rewrites the charter for the Department of Neighborhoods. That resolution is due Monday, the same day that the Council begins its budget development process. Nyland told the Council on Wednesday that they should indeed expect a draft resolution this coming week. It will be interesting to see how it massages the issues around the re-allocation of some or all resources away from supporting the District Councils, and whether the Mayor’s draft budget, due to be presented Monday, requests additional fundng for the department.