When I got notice that the Eastlake Community Council was holding an “urgent public meeting” to discuss how to “save the district councils,” I figured it was as good a time as any to check in on how the traditional neighborhood councils—the homeowner-dominated, largely white, largely elderly groups that feel they’re losing sway at City Hall—are dealing with the changes Mayor Ed Murray and Department of Neighborhoods Director Kathy Nyland announced in July.
Turns out the answer is: Not well at all. At last night’s meeting on Eastlake (more sparsely attended than a West Seattle gathering held just after the mayor made his announcement), neighborhood council and district council members from across the city (north of I-90, at least) denounced legislation that would codify the mayor’s executive order, which severed formal ties between the city and the neighborhood councils and cut $1.2 million in funding that, until July, paid for staffers to attend district council meetings and assist the groups.
The purpose of the meeting was, ostensibly, to discuss and propose amendments to an ordinance and resolution that would redirect DON resources to creating a more inclusive community involvement process.
What it turned into, though, was a chorus of disappointment and despair, borne out of a shared conviction that Murray and Nyland want to eliminate geographically based community groups and redefine “community” along demographic lines. I got the sense that this was a group that would like nothing more than to go back to 1987—a year that was invoked frequently last night, because it’s when the neighborhood district councils were formed—before the Internet, politically active renters, and the notion of “inclusion” as a critical cultural value.
The concerns I heard—many of them based in what I’d call a somewhat paranoid view of city government—fell into a few broad categories.
1. Nyland and Murray “based this entire change on a single sign-up sheet,” rather than any process or data. The charge, first raised at last night’s meeting by Central Area District Council president Dan Sanchez, seems to be that the decision to cut ties with and financial aid for the district council was based on reading a single sign-up sheet at a single district council meeting where most of the people were white.
As far as I can tell, there’s no basis to this claim, except that Nyland may have picked up a sign-up sheet and made a comment about it at some point. Having gone to countless neighborhood meetings over the years, I can tell you anecdotally that the people who show up are overwhelmingly white and over 50. But actually, you don’t need me to say that because a city audit confirmed it all the way back in 2009, and warned the councils that “if the City is truly to prioritize race and social justice, use of Roberts Rules, complicated bylaws, and tedious meeting requirements, coupled with a lack of funds for translation, childcare, or other incentives and aids for participation must be addressed for the entire district council system, including the CNC.”
None of that has taken place in the intervening seven years.
Nyland told me recently, with some exasperation, that the district councils have been well aware that the city planned to reduce their role if they didn’t make the changes suggested by the audit. “The audit is from 2009, and that audit was triggered by years and years and years of conversations; this is nothing new,” Nyland said. “Since [Murray’s] first day in office, he’s been very clear that status quo was not an option. DON has great programs, but … .how we do outreach and engagement as a department and as a city has not evolved with the changing demographics” of the city.
2. It’s more important that the neighborhood councils be geographically representative than that they’re demographically diverse. In fact, it’s “unconscionable” to point out that the district councils and their constituent groups are dominated by white, middle-to-upper-middle-class homeowners.
“All the stuff about diversity, about age, about income, has all been part of their strategy,” one speaker (whose name, unfortunately, I did not catch) said. “It seems unconscionable to me that the mayor would talk about one end of town being racist, and all this terrible, divisive kind of talk.” (He didn’t.) “If you really want to talk about what’s happening [with] gentrification that’s impacting people of color, it’s the gentrification of Columbia City, that whole thing. I used to drive down Martin Luther King Way to get to Boeing, and you could see a very sizable African American community waiting out there for the buses.” I think the implication is that “you” no longer see that as you drive past, ergo: Must be gentrification.
Suzie Burke, a board member for the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, put it this way: “I don’t identify as an Irish person—I identify as someone from Fremont, for goodness’ sakes!” Thing is, Irish people have not been historically (or at least recently) excluded from the organizations that supposedly represent Seattle’s neighborhoods. And suggesting that African Americans, or renters, or young people, or any other demographic group, don’t share any common interests shows a profound need to actually engage with people outside your social circle.
3. People who don’t show up at neighborhood council meetings just aren’t interested in participating, and the city shouldn’t coddle them with things like “online engagement.”
Chris Leman, president of the Eastlake Community Council, argued passionately in favor of the old-timey, drawn-out community meetings the 2009 audit called “tedious,” saying that the “town meeting” was part of the fabric of American life and culture.
“If you go to a public meeting, you don’t have to have internet access. You don’t even have to be able to read, as long as you can understand,” Leman said. (In all my years of attending community meetings, I’ve never seen someone attend who can’t read, but I guess the point is that strangers can wander in to community council meetings even if they don’t have computers and weren’t on the email list. I haven’t seen that happen either.) “The fact is that town meetings are so fundamental to the whole American way of life. Meetings go back hundreds of years. This notion of social media—what they call slacktivism—that as long as you just check off on a petition electronically, that you’ve done all you need to do… I’m just frightened that we have a Department of Neighborhoods that knows so little about organizing anymore.”
The notion that you have to show up at nighttime meetings to truly participate (anything less and you’re just a “slacktivist”) conveniently sidelines people who work at night, people with kids, young people who live their lives online, and anyone who would be intimidated by walking in a room, like the one last night, and put on the spot by a stranger demanding that you tell the group your full name, where you live, and who you represent (true story, and not for the first time).
There was also a bizarre tangent about whether allowing people to participate and engage in dialogue online would allow “bad actors” to engaged in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks or flood council members’ inboxes with “millions” of letters and their feeds with “unfiltered hashtags” to skew their opinions and votes. To me, that speaks to the need for neighborhood groups to learn a little bit more about how the Internet works (and how council members process the form letters they receive) before condemning all digital communications as “slacktivist” silliness.
4. It’s all a plot.
Reasonable arguments can certainly be had about the value of online communication, or the definition of “community.” But some of the conspiracy theories fielded last night truly deserve that name. Blogger David Baum, who has written many posts on his blog accusing various groups of being in secret cahoots on HALA, the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, spoke about the “explicit strategy to move control from us up to city hall,” demonstrated, somehow, by the progressive policy think tank Sightline Institute, which is supposedly itself in the pocket of Facebook.
“It is a deliberate strategy based in ideology, and they’re executing it with extreme deliberateness to move authority up, so that people can’t resist the new way of thinking,” Baum said ominously. “They can’t say no to increased density on [the city’s] terms.”
Another speaker, eager to be heard in the back of the room, kept jumping in while others were talking to say that the real reason the mayor “got rid of” the district councils (he didn’t, and Burke herself noted at the start of the meeting that few of them intend to disband) is because “they were too effective.”
Finally, there was Leman’s theory that Kathy Nyland, who was appointed head of DON in May 2015, has personally spent years obsessively “collecting complaints about district councils” and waiting for her opportunity to pounce. “She never shared them. She just saved them up and pulled them out now. … She suppressed that information and kept it to herself,” Leman said.
Unfortunately, I had to leave the meeting before its scheduled end time of 9pm (typical slacktivist), but I talked afterward to Sarajane Siegfriedt, who stayed until the end; she said the group never reached consensus or voted on anything, including her proposal to ask the city council to change “community” to “neighborhood” in the mayor’s resolution.
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