As Council Moves Into Retail Politics, are “Office Hours” a Good Use of City Resources?

City Council member Mike O’Brien at a recent office hours session in Ballard. So

Photo credit: Hayley Young, Seattle Magazine

Check out my piece in this month’s Seattle Magazine, about the city council’s institution of in-district “office hours” in the post-council-districts world. The piece explores different council members’ approaches to this new frontier of retail politics, and poses the question: Are office hours, where council members throw open their (community center) doors to all comers, a positive move toward accessibility, or a poor use of limited city resources?

On a bright afternoon at the Ballard library, constituents arrive in a steady stream for their chance to speak for 10–15 minutes with Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien, who represents northwest Seattle’s District 6. He’s holding his in-district “office hours” for constituents. On this day, they include grizzled baby boomer guys in cargo pants, moms in workout clothes with smart running backpacks and harried couples whose kids play in the corner as a growing crowd mills around. What they all seem to have in common is a desire to walk away from their meeting with a sense of accomplishment—help with an underwater mortgage, reassurance about parking worries in their neighborhood or knowing they’ve lodged their grievances with someone at City Hall.

Holding in-district office hours is a new experience for the council members who represent the city’s seven geographic districts, each with about 80,000 residents. After more than a century of electing all nine City Council members citywide, in 2013 voters decided to upend the previous civic order by splitting the council into districts and electing just two council members at large. Council members, who previously focused on issues that came up in their committees (transportation, land use, utilities and so on), now find themselves responsible for answering neighborhood-specific questions, such as: “Why do basements on my street flood when it rains?” “How can I get more police patrols in my neighborhood?” “Why are my utility rates so high?” “Can I get a crosswalk on my street?”

There is little doubt that this opportunity for one-on-one contact improves access for constituents. But with a day that still has only 24 hours, and a public that doesn’t always understand the types of issues that the council addresses, are office hours helping council members govern effectively? Do they represent a good use of the councilors’ time?

Read the whole piece here.

2 thoughts on “As Council Moves Into Retail Politics, are “Office Hours” a Good Use of City Resources?

  1. In a democracy, the fundamental role of the legislative branch of government is to represent the people. District elections and local office hours both facilitate that representation process. It’s healthy for City Councilors to get out of City Hall and into their constituency once in a while, to meet people on their own turf. Erica, you seem to suggest there is other more important work that councilors should be doing, work that constituents are detracting from. What did you have in mind?

    I remember needing to see a specific (at-large) councilmember years ago and being told the first opening on her calendar was six weeks later. I expect if I had been a city staffer or paid lobbyist, my wait would’ve been shorter. Constituents are an essential element of the legislative process; they should be celebrated, and district office hours help with that.

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