Department of Neighborhoods says more about District Councils, some of it meaningful

Today the Department of Neighborhoods posted a message from Director Kathy Nyland confirming that it had sent legislation to the Council, rewriting its charter, which is identical to what the Eastlake Community Council posted earlier this week.

They also posted copies of the legislation — a resolution and an ordinance — on their web site.  Sam Read, spokesman for the DON, told me by email earlier today that the legislation doesn’t officially become public until the Council introduces it, but DON had asked for and received permission to post it in advance of its official introduction.

Nyland’s message attempts to speak to the issue of District Councils:

Many of you have asked what the legislation means for the future of the District Council system.  Let me be clear:  the legislation does not dissolve or disband District Councils or any other community groups. It doesn’t replace face-to-face meetings or prohibit participation by any person or group – to the contrary, it helps create more opportunities for dynamic community engagement. As Seattle continues to grow and change, the City must continually revisit and expand its public engagement efforts to encourage broad participation across all demographic groups.

But once again Nyland evades the key question: what support, if any, will the Department provide to District Councils? Fortunately, I had posed that question earlier this week to Read, and in his email this morning, he mostly answered it:

“City staff will provide District Councils with the same level of service provided to any other community group seeking action or assistance from the City.  District Councils are just as important as all other volunteer-based organizations throughout the city. We realize that there isn’t one representative group which is why we are discussing equity and trying to level the playing field, knowing that not everyone has the same starting place.

The Department of Neighborhoods will provide technical assistance including online training, leadership development toolkits, and other resources to all community groups, District Councils, and other community based and neighborhood based organizations. These services will help groups with building capacity, strengthening communications, developing successful outreach strategies, and more.”

This is progress in understanding DON’s plan going forward; it spells out the type of services that will be made available. It also makes clear that District Councils that choose to continue on will be treated on a level playing field with any other community group that requests support from the city.  What it doesn’t do is commit to a quantity or level of support that the District Councils can expect. While I’m sure the councils will find that disappointing, it is understandable: the Department of Neighborhoods has limited resources and is committing to spreading them evenly and equitably across all organizations that request them. If it turns out not to be enough, then the DCs should be taking that up with those who control the purse-strings: the City Council.

The other big question that I asked Read was what the plan was for administering the Neighborhood Matching Fund program. His answer:

“DON is working to develop geographically-based review for our community grant funds while also hoping to broaden participation in the process. Each of the community grant funds (Neighborhood Matching Fund, Neighborhood Parks and Street Fund and Neighborhood Street Fund) has historically had a unique review process and, moving forward, DON proposes maintaining differences in approach by fund.  For the Neighborhood Matching Fund, DON is working to integrate the work and role of the new Community Involvement Commission into the review process, potentially in the same capacity the City Neighborhood Council served as a reviewer of recommended projects.”

It’s an honest answer: they haven’t got it figured out yet, but the new Community Involvement Commission will probably serve the role of final recommender just as the City Neighborhood Council (the parent organization sitting over the District Councils) did in the old process. To no one’s surprise, it does permanently remove from the District Councils their most significant contribution that had actually been codified in law.

The obvious good news here for District Councils is a verbal commitment to some level of support, and what that support might look like. The bad news is that it isn’t spelled out as a commitment in the Department’s proposed legislation rewriting its charter, and depending on how many other community organizations also request support, it might end up being pretty light. But a specific proposal is an easier thing to argue about than a vague statement of principles, so this might move the shouting match between the DON and the District Councils in a productive direction.