Department of Neighborhoods equivocates on support for District Councils, insulates itself

The Department of Neighborhoods seems determined to leave everyone guessing as to what kind of support it will provide to District Councils moving forward. And in the meantime, it’s moving to insulate itself further from accountability to the communities it serves.

Its communications regarding support for District Councils get more confusing with every passing day. On one hand, Mayor Ed Murray issued an executive order in July directing the DON to cut its ties with the thirteen District Councils and to submit legislation by September 26th to the City Council that would rewrite its charter with a new approach for doing community outreach. Murray’s executive order led to backlash from the DC’s who had been caught completely off-guard by the announcement.

On the other hand, DON Director Kathy Nyland testified to the Council last month that her department was not cutting its ties with the DC’s but needed to spread its limited resources more broadly to cover other communities that weren’t represented by geographic boundaries and didn’t match the older white homeowner demographic that dominates the District Councils.

Last week, the DON quietly sent off its proposed legislation (a resolution and an ordinance) to the Council. While the department has a placeholder on their web site for this legislation, it has not posted or announced it. Nevertheless, the Eastlake Community Council managed to procure copies and posted them along with a call for people to reach out to their City Council members in support of the DC’s.

Both the resolution and the ordinance introduce a new, carefully crafted phrase to describe the support that the District Councils have been receiving to-date: “unique and prioritized access to City resources.” In its recitations section, DON’s proposed ordinance claims that Murray’s executive order directed:

the implementation of more equitable public involvement techniques by amending Chapter 3.35 of the Seattle Municipal Code to end the practice of providing District Councils and the City Neighborhood Council with unique and prioritized access to City resources, thereby affording Department of Neighborhoods staff the capacity to assist and engage a broader range of community voices

But this is revisionist history; what it actually said is (emphasis mine):

On or before September 26, 2016, the Department of Neighborhoods, Seattle Office for Civil Rights and City Budget Office shall develop a proposed City Council resolution with mayoral concurrence that memorializes the community outreach and engagement principles described and developed under 1, above. Upon passage by the City Council, the resolution shall supersede Resolution 27709 and other, previous, related resolutions, with the intent of terminating the City’s existing official ties to District Councils and the City Neighborhood Council.

On or before September 26, 2016, the Department of Neighborhoods shall prepare an ordinance articulating a new citywide framework and strategic plan for community engagement, including the creation of a Seattle Community Involvement Commission. The ordinance shall also amend Chapter 3.35 (Department of Neighborhoods) of the Seattle Municipal Code, and any other relevant code sections, to be consistent with the resolution prepared to supersede Resolution 27709.

So with these new word games, the DON and the Mayor are now equivocating on what fate they intend for District Councils. Ending the practice of providing “unique and prioritized access to City resources” could mean either taking away the resources altogether, or offering the District Councils the same resources that other community groups receive — akin to the characterization of “sharing” that Nyland gave to the Council last month.

Not only is it unclear whether and how DON intends to support District Councils, but it’s also unclear why it continues to be intentionally vague — especially since it is codifying its intent in an ordinance. Even if you agree that District Councils don’t represent the present-day demographics of Seattle (hint: they don’t), the people who sit on those councils are still dedicated volunteers and deserve to be treated with respect, honesty and transparency. Right now they are getting none of the above.

The ordinance also creates a new body, the Community Involvement Commission. It will have sixteen members:  seven appointed by the City Council (one representing each district), seven appointed by the Mayor (let’s be honest: the DON will be choosing the Mayor’s appointments), and two additional members appointed by the Commission itself. The commission has three duties:

1. Provide advice on priorities, policies, and strategies related to equitable civic engagement and public participation in City decision-making processes. This includes review of proposals brought forward by the City, as well as ones identified by the Commission.

2. Advise the Department of Neighborhoods on the review of community grant processes.

3. Meet at least four times per year.

The ordinance is clear that the commission “shall act in an advisory capacity only.” So the work of over 100 volunteers on thirteen District Councils has been distilled down to sixteen people on a commission that has no actual power to do anything other than hand out advice that the DON can freely ignore. Oh, and those sixteen people are also supposed to represent other under-represented, non-geographic constituencies. Oh, and seven of the sixteen are appointed by the Department itself. Being able to pick your own outside advisors is a nice way to build the appearance of broad support for your agenda, but it decreases the likelihood you’ll get exposed to new viewpoints.

There is another problem with the DON’s proposed ordinance and resolution. The chief responsibility of the District Councils since their original founding has been to help adjudicate the Neighborhood Matching Fund Program. While the new legislation withdraws that responsibility from District Councils and specifies that the Department of Neighborhoods will administer the program and fund, it gives no details on how it should do so other than that one line in the duties of the Community Involvement Commission that says it should “advise the Department of Neighborhoods on the review of community grant processes.” That says nothing about how the Neighborhood Matching Fund program should be run; it simply says that the Commission will advise DON on how to “review” the program. It’s left entirely up to the department to organize and run the program however it sees fit.

If the City Council goes along with this, it will be a beautiful act of irony: the Department of Neighborhoods, the city office chiefly responsible for gathering community input, will have shed nearly all of its direct accountability to the communities it serves, except for a single, advisory only, commission. Plus, the Department gets to appoint nearly half that commission’s members. And it will have done so through a process that repeatedly failed to seek community input on proposed changes before announcing them (the Engage Seattle survey was not designed to provide this kind of structural guidance). On top of that, it is attempting to codify vague rules into its charter, and it is equivocating on its true intent. The city department that is supposed to be the expert on community outreach is spectacularly failing at that very task.

The critiques of the District Councils are valid: they don’t mirror the demographics of Seattle’s population, and they alone can’t speak for important and under-represented communities in the city that aren’t defined by geographic boundaries. But the actions the Department of Neighborhoods is taking  speak more to its desire to increase its autonomy and decrease its accountability than to actually improve community input.  When the DON’s proposed legislation comes up for consideration in front of the City Council, the Council members need to put Nyland on the spot and force her to commit to specifics. They also need to take a hard look at whether the department is on a valid path to increasing community representation under the plan they are proposing.

I have an email in to the Department of Neighborhoods asking for clarification on these issues. I will update this post if and when I hear back from them.

4 thoughts on “Department of Neighborhoods equivocates on support for District Councils, insulates itself”

  1. Thank you for your careful attention to the what the Dept. of Neighborhoods and the Mayor are doing here. The slippery equivocation and back-pedaling are alarming. I believe the elimination of the District Councils is an attempt by the Mayor to squelch grassroots citizen input into City policy-making, especially around land-use issues. But they can’t come out and say that so they play word games in public. We must demand honesty and accountability!

  2. Plain English: Out with the Department of Neighborhoods (plural) in with the Department of Community (singular).

  3. With regard to the membership of the district councils, many district councils are councils of individuals appointed by broadly based organizations like community associations, chambers of commerce, the democratic and republican district organizations and so forth. The membership of these organizations is typically broadly representative. DON has not conducted any analysis of district council membership that takes this into account.

    Another important point missing from DON’s reports: A study of 25 years of over 3,000 Neighborhood Matching Fund grants confirms that whatever you might think of the district council system, district councils have awarded more NMF grants to neighborhoods with historical deficits in public investment such as Southeast Seattle and the Central District than anywhere else. (The data analysis I refer to was prepared by a recently retired City of Seattle employee. I can provide it to you (with the analyst’s permission) for posting on your blog.

Comments are closed.