The C Is for Crank Interviews: Jenny Durkan

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Former US attorney Jenny Durkan has been pigeonholed—unfairly, she says—as the “conservative” candidate in the race for mayor, where “conservative” is a term broad enough to include a longtime activist for LGBT causes, former Obama appointee, and advocate for supervised drug consumption sites. She’s caught flak for her style (too stiff and inauthentic, some say), her views on homelessness (more conservative than ex-mayor Ed Murray’s, by some measures) and her tendency to respond to questions in elliptical, lawyerly soundbites (many of which have been edited out of this interview, because nobody wants to read those.) As the candidate with the support of Seattle’s business establishment (as well as most of the local labor groups), she’s also widely considered the frontrunner in the race, and has enjoyed a large spending advantage over her opponent Cary Moon—in addition to outraising Moon in absolute dollars ($727,689 to Moon’s $231,331, of which $111,521 is Moon’s own money), a business backed political action committee, People for Jenny Durkan, has raised $124,600 so far for an independent-expenditure campaign on Durkan’s behalf.

I sat down with Durkan in September.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: There has been a lot of talk by candidates this year about revisiting the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, particularly the amount of affordable housing developers should have to provide and whether single-family areas should be opened up to other types of development, like duplexes and row houses. Would you revisit any part of the HALA agreement?

JD: I never use the word ‘revisit.’ I think it is absolutely clear that we cannot bring on board the number of affordable housing units we need without the private sector participating strongly, and the only way you’re to do that is through a series of incentives. So I think we have to keep the part of HALA that is going to give us the ability to bring on more affordable housing, and as we roll it out, we have to make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences—that we aren’t impacting neighborhoods, communities, or families in ways that we didn’t think about.

I think we just have to make sure that we are looking at it how we implement it and make sure it makes sense. We’re getting two, three, four, five years away from when the deal was made and the marketplace is growing. So have we gotten that ratio of required housing and public benefit for housing right, or is there more room there? Should we have transportation impact fees? Should we have park impact fees? We  don’t want to kill the development, because there’s no question that we’re going to get more dense, but as we do that, can we squeeze out of that growth the benefits we need [such as] affordable housing [and] transit-oriented development?

ECB: Do you think Murray made the wrong decision by taking a proposal to allow duplexes and other modest density in single-family areas off the table, and would you revisit that decision?

JD: I think it was the smart thing politically to pull that off the table, because I think the whole thing would have collapsed if the mandatory [affordable housing] fees collapsed. We would not have the resources to bring on anywhere near the affordable housing we need. To pull the rug out from under the deal and be left with nothing—it would have crushed us as city.

ECB: Murray also cut ties with the neighborhood district councils, which prompted quite a backlash from single-family homeowners who say their views are no longer being heard at City Hall. Would you restore city funding and support for those groups?

JD: I would have neighborhood councils. They’d be configured differently, but I think we suffer way too much from top-down right now, and part of the reason there is so much anxiety in neighborhoods and communities is the city has quit listening to the neighborhoods’ needs. I’ll give you an example. I was down in Rainier Beach the other day and I spent several hours with the community and youth down there, because when I was US Attorney, I’d helped them get a grant for youth violence prevention, and I wanted to get updated on what’s working and  what’s not working. And they’ve done amazing things. Even with the huge amount of displacement, the increased violence, the deaths they’d seen, the community is fighting to maintain its place.

“What I hear from West Seattle, Ballard, Greenwood, Capitol Hill—everyone feels like they’re not being listened to, and I think you have to do that. Government exists to serve the people.”

 

But they’re not getting the help they need from the city, because the city has quit listening to them. From the activists to the kids, you will hear, ‘We think we’ve figured out a path out for youth violence prevention, for activating our corners, for having corner greeters, for empowering businesses, for helping bring business back here. I think that the support the city had historically given them has eroded. You can’t do neighborhood work from city hall. While you have to have a vision and policy that works for the whole city and move people beyond some of their own vested interests, you also have to listen to what they think the solutions are for their own communities and neighborhoods.

ECB: So did Murray’s decision to take some power away from the neighborhood councils make that harder?

JD: No, again, I really want to make clear that I don’t want to talk in terms of, ‘Do you agree with what Ed did?’ I’m telling you what I would do. I think you have to have a very vibrant Department of Neighborhoods that works with people in communities and listens to people and talks to people. As I understand it, in some neighborhoods, it became the same people showing up all the time, so it was a very limited spectrum of voices. My view is, the answer is not to shut down those voices—the answer is to bring more people in. Maybe not at the same room at the same time, but you can have more meetings at different times. You can have virtual meetings. You reach out in all the ways you can to get more voices in. What I hear from West Seattle, Ballard, Greenwood, Capitol Hill—everyone feels like they’re not being listened to, and I think you have to do that. Government exists to serve the people.

ECB: Opponents of supervised drug consumption sites have filed an initiative to ban the sites throughout King County. What’s your take on that lawsuit, and do you think Seattle will ever actually get a supervised-consumption site?

JD: I think the city of Seattle should consider joining that suit and challenge it in their own right. [Ed: Since our conversation, the city has expressed its intent to join the lawsuit.] [Beyond that,] I don’t think they have the ability to stop the city from doing what it wants. If I’m mayor, we’re going to go ahead [with a supervised consumption site] and we’ll take the legal challenge, because the city of Seattle does not depend on King County for its rights. It has its own statutory rights, and one of those is to decide what it needs to do for the public health and safety of its people.

There’s no question in my mind that consumption sites are something we need to have as part of the health care response to a health crisis on our streets. Right now, we’re in a place where we give clean needles to people and tell them, ‘Go use it in the car, in the doorways, in the parks.’ It makes no sense. And for me, what’s most important is, if you read the task force recommendations, it’s not just a place where people can go and use drugs. It is a place where there will be health care workers, where they may get hooked up with addiction services and counseling and treatment. It may not ‘take’ the first time, the third time, the fifth time, the tenth time, but for somebody, it might eventually work, and that’s what we have to provide them, is that option. And they will never get it if they’re in the doorway or on the street corner.

 

“I think it was the smart thing politically to pull [allowing duplexes and row houses in single-family areas] off the table, because I think [HALA] would have collapsed.”

 

Right now, it’s being portrayed in such an unfair way. People might be surprised that a former federal prosecutor would say we should do this, but what is the alternative? I live downtown right now. My partner and I went out to dinner the night before last. In a three-block walk, we saw three different homeless people shooting up heroin, three who probably just had, and a couple of people looking to score. That’s in three blocks! What we’re doing right now is not working, and what we did in the ’90s didn’t work. I was in the front row. I was a criminal defense lawyer and saw that the war on drugs was really a war on addicts, and that’s who we locked up. And if we don’t have public health response to this crisis, we will end up in the same bad place. So we have to try things that are different. Will it work perfectly? Absolutely not. Is one site enough? Of course it’s not. But we have to show that there can be a different response that might work for some people some of the time.

ECB: Do you think the city has been moving in the right direction on homelessness, in terms of both encampment sweeps and the way the city spends its service dollars?

JD: I think what we’ve been doing on homelessness isn’t working. I think we have not done some of the really hard things we have to do to really move the dial. Number one is, we have to get real and we have to get forward-leaning on addiction services and mental health services.

I think the Navigation Teams are a mechanism for trying something different, and I think that from all the reports I’ve heard, from people who’ve been working with them, they’ve had some good successes. In my view, we have to get people out of tents and into treatment. When I talk to the various providers and the people working with the homeless, their estimates are that a significant majority of the hard-core chronic homeless are suffering either from mental illness, drug problems, or a combination of the two.

 

ECB: You’ve opposed opening up the police union contracts to observation and participation by the public. Given that the police department is still under a federal consent decree and the police union has been reluctant to institute reforms, why do you oppose opening up the contracts, and what would you do to increase transparency at SPD?

 

JD: There is no question, with Trump as president and the Janus decision coming down, that the right-to-work forces are going to be emboldened and they’re going to be coming after workers’ rights. In that context, I think it is irresponsible for anyone to say, ‘Let’s do their work for them and open up collective bargaining.’

Second, I’ve tried to talk to [reform advocates] and say, ‘Okay, what parts of police reform are they not doing because it’s against their contract?’ And the answer I’ve gotten back is, ‘Nothing.’ So the question of whether we can see what they’re bargaining is separate from the question of whether they’re doing it and if it’s effective. Going into police reform, we had a list of things we had to do, and so it wasn’t a question about, were they going to do them? A judge was ordering them to do it. So then the only part we aren’t seeing is what are we going to pay them to do it. And that all comes out when the city council has to vote on it, so there is more transparency than people think there is. My question would be, what things do people feel they don’t know?

 

“I’ve tried to talk to [reform advocates] and say, ‘Okay, what parts of police reform are they not doing because it’s against their contract?’ And the answer I’ve gotten back is, ‘Nothing.’ So the question of whether we can see what they’re bargaining is separate from the question of whether they’re doing it and if it’s effective.”

 

ECB: One thing we don’t know might be whether the city is going to pay cops a huge bonus just for wearing body cameras, for example.

JD: But we will know that when the contract gets presented and has to be voted on. We’re not in the room, but we set out the guiding principles—which I think the public has a right to do—and we see things that are going to be in the contract. Once we have the inspector general stood up, once we have the [Community Police Commission] more fully staffed, part of their function is going to be setting what those goals and policies are going to be. There will be transparency into that, because their job is to bring in the voices of the community and to report back. So we have built in already, I think, the ability to have more transparency, and I think some people just aren’t aware of it.

ECB: If the issue isn’t the police contract, then why do you think we’re stalled on police reform?

JD: I actually don’t think we’re stalled on police reform. I think we’re stalled on implementing some of the ordinances that I think will give greater civilian accountability. [Ed: The city can’t implement police-reform legislation until Judge James Robart signs off on the proposed reforms.] In terms of what’s actually happening on the ground—de-escalation policies, crisis intervention training, body cams—it’s all moving forward.

ECB: If that’s true, then how do you explain incidents where de-escalation training clearly didn’t work, like the shooting of Charleena Lyles?

JD: The Charleena Lyles thing shows us that reform is never done. Since the changes [requiring SPD officers to go through crisis intervention training], significant uses of force are down 60 percent in three years. That’s amazing. Charleena Lyles was a horrible, horrible crisis. I think we failed her as a society in so many ways even before the police got to the door. She had been living on the street, and she got into housing, but clearly still had issues with domestic violence, mental health issues, a single mom, and from what I can tell from the public record, about the only time she got provided services was when she was arrested and in jail. That’s the only time we as a society did anything for her. And so we have to change that equation where, if we are going to get people off the street and into housing, we also have to provide them the social services, the network, the support that they need day to day.

 

ECB: Your opponent has said she’ll expedite Sound Transit delivery to Ballard and West Seattle by loaning Sound Transit funds to build those segments more quickly. What would you do to help Seattle get its final two segments of light rail faster?

JD: The way we can best speed up ST3 is through accelerating the siting process. That’s the longest lead time that you have in these megaprojects, and we unfortunately tend to do those things very sequentially—environmental impact statement, community input, three different site alternatives, then SDOT weighs in… We can’t afford to do that. If I’m mayor, we’re going to try to do things, instead of sequentially, in collaboration. We know where the lines are going and there’s only so many locations that the transit stations can go. Let’s start doing the process now. Let’s not wait for all the alternatives. Let’s start engaging the noisy neighborhoods and the community voices now, and start having that robust dialogue. If you wait for two years, three years to engage, then you getting those intractable fights that seem to delay things forever. With these big projects, if you let them get away from you, they will get away from you. If you deal them at the beginning, you can impact how long they take.

 

 

City Lets Seattle Decide How to Spend $2 Million, But Not Everyone’s Happy

This story originally ran at Seattle Magazine.

Ever noticed a new curb cut on your corner and wonder how it got there, or stopped at a brightly painted new crosswalk and wished an intersection in your neighborhood had gotten one, too?

Until recently, the process for choosing which of these small projects got funded could be a mystery to anyone who didn’t belong to their neighborhood district council—the groups which submit projects for possible funding under Seattle’s Neighborhood Park and Street Fund. In previous years, each of the 13 districts received an annual lump sum to pay for small (up to $90,000) improvements—everything from new sidewalks to lighting upgrades. The district councils, whose members had to represent established community organizations, would brainstorm a list of projects to submit to the city, which approve or reject them.

“There was very little outreach done around when the projects were being built, what the projects were, and how they got funded, and they would just kind of show up in the neighborhood,” says Jenny Frankl, a strategic advisor at the city’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON). “It was a mysterious process.”

That changed last year, when Mayor Ed Murray cut ties with the district councils—which, according to a 2009 audit, had long been unrepresentative of an increasingly diverse city made up largely of young renters. Instead, the city opted to expand an existing “participatory budgeting” project called “Youth Vote, Youth Voice,” in which 3,000 Seattle youth decided how to spend $700,000 in neighborhood funds. The new “Your Voice, Your Choice” invited neighborhood residents, including those unaffiliated with any formal group, to nominate projects online. After it was determined which projects were doable, residents would vote on how to spend a total of $2 million in city funding—$285,000 per city council district.

More than 900 suggestions poured in across the city, compared to 150 or so in a typical year under the old system. They ranged from benches and tables at Wallingford’s Meridian Park to a “duck crossing” sign at Denny Blaine Park in Madrona.

Although many were deemed “not feasible”—DON rejected the duck crossing “due to unpredictable nature of [duck] habitat locations”—volunteer “project development teams” considered around two thirds of them before choosing a final list of 10 projects per district that will go to a citywide vote June 3.

DON spokeswoman Lois Maag adds that Your Voice, Your Choice is “much more transparent” than the old district council-led process. “Not only are people able to provide their idea, but then they get to vote for that idea,” she says. “Before, it was a much smaller group of people making the decisions.”

But the process has its discontents, such as Dan Sanchez, chair of the Central Area District Council. An outspoken opponent of the new Murray-backed process, Sanchez says the city failed to achieve its goal of increasing diversity and inclusion, making “participatory budgeting” anything but. By Sanchez’s count, gleaned from sign-in sheets at the Your Voice, Your Choice development team meetings, it was mostly white homeowners (many 55 and over) who attended. Only two African-Americans came out, he says. “Our last district council meeting had seven African-Americans at it, for crying out loud, and citywide they got two?” Sanchez says. “Something’s wrong with that picture.”

Maag points out that during the 2009 district council meetings used to gauge diversity, staff encouraged attendees to fill out sign-in sheets, which asked for race and age. “Most of the [project development team] meetings did not have” those, she says. However, Maag concedes that the city “didn’t meet our diversity goals in this project development phase.”

For Sanchez, the groups’ lack of diversity is proof of “what we had been saying along—you can’t force people to participate.” DON had a similar experience when it organized focus groups to provide feedback on the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda—although turnout was high in the early days, many people dropped out over time, especially those who did shift work or had childcare issues.

Frankl acknowledges that participation was sometimes low—one meeting drew just four participants to review dozens of potential projects—and says the city plans to do more to increase participation next time. She admits “it was not a perfect process” and pledges to improve outreach next time.

“I would not characterize all of the meetings as a homogenous group of participants,” Frankl says. “However, there’s a lot of room to do a better job of pulling in different voices and different people.”

That could mean staggering meeting times (5:30 p.m. starts were a barrier for some) or allowing people to comment online.

Seattle residents can vote online for their preferred projects until June 30, and the city hopes to make paper ballots available at libraries or community centers. The city will fund the top vote-getters after polls close at the end of the month.

How Seattle Is Dismantling a NIMBY Power Structure

Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Director Kathy Nyland (Credit: The Rose Center for Public Leadership)

This story first appeared on Next City as part a series focused on community-engaged design made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

For decades, activist homeowners have held virtual veto power over nearly every decision on Seattle’s growth and development.

In large and small ways, these homeowners, who tend to be white, more affluent and older than the average resident, have shaped neighborhoods in their reflection — building a city that is consistently rated as one of the nation’s most livable, as well as one of its most expensive.

Now — in the face of an unprecedented housing crisis and a dramatic spike in homelessness — that may be starting to change.

Last July, Mayor Ed Murray and the director of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, Kathy Nyland, announced that Seattle was cutting formal ties with, and funding for, the 13 volunteer Neighborhood District Councils that had been the city’s chief sounding boards on neighborhood planning since the 1990s. Through this bureaucratic sleight of hand, Murray and Nyland signaled their intent to seek more input and feedback from lower-income folks, people of color and renters — who now make up 54 percent of the city — and away from the white baby boomers who have long dominated discussions about Seattle’s future. The message: We appreciate your input, but we’re going to get a second opinion.

A few months later, the Department of Neighborhoods doubled down on its commitment to community engagement, putting out a call for volunteers to serve on a new 16-member Community Involvement Commission, which will be charged with helping city departments develop “authentic and thorough” ways to reach “all” city residents, including underrepresented communities such as low-income people, homeless residents and renters. Finally, DON will also oversee and staff a second new commission, the Seattle Renters’ Commission, which will advise all city departments on policies that affect renters and monitor the enforcement and effectiveness of the city’s renter protection laws.

The shakeup has rattled traditional neighborhood groups, which have grown accustomed to outsized influence at City Hall, and invigorated some groups that have long felt ignored and marginalized by the city.

The shift toward a more inclusive neighborhoods department, and neighborhood planning process, is more than just symbolic; it’s political. The homeowner-dominated neighborhood councils have typically argued against land use changes that would allow more density (in the form of townhouses and apartment buildings) in and near Seattle’s traditional single-family neighborhoods, which make up nearly two-thirds of the city. Including more renters and low-income people in the mix could dilute, or even upend, those groups’ agendas.

“Our city has changed dramatically since our district councils system was created three decades ago, and we have seen them over time become less and less representative not only of their neighborhoods but of Seattle itself,” Murray said last year.

His statement echoed a point Nyland made in a memo to the City Council back in May: “We have heard from residents active in the system that ‘District Councils work for us.’ … However, they don’t work for everyone.”

Nyland should know. She came up through the council system, first getting involved in the Georgetown Community Council where she questioned the purpose of a new trash dump in the largely industrial neighborhood where she lived and owned a boutique called George with her partner, Holly. She also got involved with the Greater Duwamish District Council and helped fight down a proposal that would have turned Georgetown into the city’s official strip club district. She eventually became the chair of the citywide Neighborhood Community Council, and recalls sending emails “at 1 in the morning in my pajamas sitting in my living room, because that’s when I had time to do it.

“We have systems in place that are not easy to navigate,” Nyland says, and people in established groups who say that “people are just choosing not to come to the meetings. … What if someone works at night? What if someone has kids and can’t get a babysitter? What if someone can’t speak English? What if someone just didn’t know about the meetings? They’re not making a choice not to come. They can’t come!”

 

Mohamud Yusuf came to Seattle as a refugee from Somalia by way of Nairobi, Kenya, in 1996, when the Somali community in Seattle was still “very small,” he recalls. Today, his community is thriving in areas like southeast Seattle, which is still one of the most affordable parts of the city, although rising costs are pushing many immigrants and refugees farther south, outside Seattle. Yusuf was a writer, activist and photojournalist in Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s, and 10 years ago, he started a newspaper called Runta News; “runta,” in Somali, means “the truth.” Today, Yusuf also works as a community liaison to the city, earning $50 an hour to connect community members to city programs and services.

The changes at City Hall excite Yusuf. “I’ve been involved in the community since I was here but I’ve never seen this kind of involvement,” he says. “What we needed was to be included, to be at the table and have a voice.”

Credit: Alex Garland

Mohamud Yusuf came to Seattle as a refugee from Somalia in the 1990s and now works as a community liaison to the city.

Yusuf recounts a recent effort to get the Somali community involved in a long-range plan for Seattle Public Utilities, which provides the city’s trash service and drinking water. Instead of just making materials available in Somali and other languages upon request, the city sent outreach workers to meet with community members where they already were — in neighborhood community centers, in libraries and during English-language classes at the local Goodwill — and talked with them, in their own language, about what forthcoming changes will mean. They taught the immigrants how the city’s sanitation system works too, equipping residents with knowledge they will be able to use next time there is a question about trash collection or clean water in their community.

“The people I talked to were so happy to know more about where the water goes,” Yusuf says. “They would say, ‘We all know our garbage goes away, but we didn’t know where it was going. We are drinking clean water now at home, but we didn’t know who was doing it.”

Nyland’s reform can be traced back to a 2009 audit of the district councils that found an obsolete system that did not reflect the city’s true demographics. “The system is dominated by the presence of longtime members whose point of view is overly dominant at both the district council and city neighborhood council levels and potentially not representative of their communities,” the city audit found. “The district councils in general are not sufficiently representative of the communities they nominally represent,” it concluded.

The disconnect was even deeper in 2016, when a report by the neighborhoods department found that while the population of Seattle was becoming younger, more diverse and more evenly split between homeowners and renters, “residents attending district council meetings tend to be 40 years of age or older, Caucasian and homeowners.”

“If you’ve ever gone to some of these community meetings, they’re just deadly dull, and the same 25 people have been there for 100 years,” City Council Member Sally Bagshaw says.

At a meeting of the Ballard District Council in northwest Seattle immediately after the announcement, district council members seemed shell-shocked by the city’s decision to cut them off. Sitting around a horseshoe of tables at the area’s branch library in northwest Seattle, they took turns grousing about the change. One member argued that the mostly white, mostly middle-aged council should be considered diverse, because “this group represents homeowners, environmental groups, businesses and other organizations.” “We have people here from every state,” he added. Another suggested that the city had made the move in haste, without a plan to replace the councils. “If you’re going to get rid of the current plan, you need to have a new plan in place before you get rid of the old one,” he said.

“Right now, we’re just planting seeds. We might not see the results for a long time.”

At another recent meeting of the group formerly known as the Magnolia/Queen Anne District Council, which represents a wealthy enclave just south of Ballard, one member asked plaintively, “Why do we have to encourage certain groups to come? Why can’t it just be an open forum?”

In a sense, traditional neighborhood groups are right to feel threatened. Nyland’s announcement, coupled with her department’s new emphasis on outreach to communities that have rarely had a say in city decisions, represents a fundamental shift in the very definition of the “neighborhoods” department. By emphasizing outreach to underserved groups such as renters, immigrants and refugees, Nyland is shaking up traditional notions of community engagement and redefining community as something based not on geographic proximity, but on personal and cultural affinity.

“It’s kind of taking off in a way that I can’t keep up with,” says Sahar Fathi, a member of Nyland’s team. “We get a lot of emails from people who are like, ‘We want this to come to our community. We’re starting to go into places where people have never heard of us, and they don’t even know what government services are” — including, she says, “communities we didn’t even know existed.” In Seattle, a city of about 650,000, 25,000 residents were born in another country; of the 120 languages spoken there, the city’s liaisons collectively speak at least 65.

Fathi is one of Seattle’s relative newcomers. The Boston-born Iranian-American moved to the Emerald City a decade ago, when she was in her early 20s. After a stint as a legislative aide to City Council Member Mike O’Brien and an unsuccessful run for the State House of Representatives, she put her background as a lawyer and immigrant rights advocate to work as a policy analyst for the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. These days, Fathi oversees DON’s Public Outreach and Engagement Liaison program, which recruits and pays community members like Yusuf to serve as links between the city and marginalized groups. The liaisons’ job duties include everything from driving people to resource fairs where they can sign up for city assistance programs, to facilitating meetings at community gathering places and interpreting for city staffers, to engaging people in their first language in larger community discussions over neighborhood spending, parks programs, and planning debates.

“Before, the city would say, ‘We have a pedestrian master plan meeting, and we want people to come and give us feedback,’” Fathi says. “With all due respect to the pedestrian master plan, there are a lot of people who can barely afford to pay rent. So how do we meet people’s needs first and then build their capacity” to come to meetings about city policies that affect their neighborhoods.

Seattle’s modern neighborhood movement dates back to at least the late 1980s, when then-Mayor Charles Royer appointed neighborhood activist Jim Diers to head up the new Department of Neighborhoods and create the 13 neighborhood district councils and a citywide council made up of representatives from all the councils. Ever since, the district councils have enjoyed outsized influence at City Hall, staking out and defining “neighborhood” positions on issues and channeling city grant dollars toward their own pet projects, such as National Night Out events, neighborhood welcome signs and security lighting.

For decades, the councils advised the neighborhoods department on what “the neighborhoods” wanted, and if that advice happened to coincide precisely with the interests of the comfortable, white homeowners who dominated the council, nobody at the city seemed to mind. The councils frequently advocated against zoning changes to allow more development in or near the city’s single-family neighborhoods, including Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which would upzone much of the city and require developers to build affordable rental housing. Neighborhood activists have shown up in force at council meetings and community briefings by city staff to oppose the HALA recommendations, and one neighborhood group has successfully sued to block an approved HALA rule change that would make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages.

In recent years, though, groups that have traditionally been left out of the process have started demanding seats at the table, including advocates for transit-oriented development and immigrants and refugees, and renters. At a recent City Council briefing on the new renters’ commission, Erin House, a renter, told the council, “I see conversations at both City Hall and in neighborhoods dominated by homeowners, often at the expense of renters’ best interests. As a city, we need to find ways to correct this trend and give renters a seat at the table on conversations about Seattle’s future.”

Last year’s announcement severing ties with the neighborhood councils was a first step in that direction. For the first time since its inception in the late ’80s, the city’s neighborhoods department would spend as much time engaging with underrepresented communities as it did listening to the concerns of white property owners.

“DON has great programs,” Nyland says, “but the department has not evolved with the changing demographics of the city.”

Nyland’s department is small relative to other city agencies, but it has found ways to connect with residents without a huge infrastructure. Ice cream giveaways at summer events. Crowd canvassing at the West Seattle Farmers Market. Plopping down in a temporary parklet on the annual (PARK)ing day. And partnering with organizations like the local Goodwill training center once a quarter, to offer services and information about opportunities to get involved with city initiatives. Some of the department’s efforts have had mixed success. A recent push to engage people of color and low-income residents in the HALA planning process fizzled after the city failed to adequately prepare new participants and follow up when they stopped showing up. But others have been effective at getting new people connected to City Hall.

Nyland notes that many people bemoan the loss of neighborhood service centers, the “little city halls” where residents could talk to city staffers face-to-face. Most of those closed down years ago, the victims of city budget cuts and a population that increasingly does business with government online. Today, Nyland says, what people need more than storefronts is opportunities to engage with the city on their own time. That means telephone town halls instead of in-person presentations by city staffers; online surveys instead of public comment cards; and Skype calls instead of nighttime meetings in library activity rooms and church basements.

“My mantra is, people should be able to participate on their own timeline, from their own location,” Nyland says. “DON has been in existence for 30 years, and it has a lot of really important programs, but I think its mission and its purpose has gotten lost. We haven’t kept up with change. We haven’t refreshed. … I mean, I can’t force people to participate, but we can create opportunities to make it easier.”

At the most recent Goodwill event, Fathi says, the public outreach liaisons came in and took over the second hour of a group of immigrants’ English as a Second Language class. First, they talked briefly — in 17 different languages — about the mayor’s upcoming education summit, which aimed to find solutions to address racial disparities in Seattle schools. Then, they signed the residents up for “all the services the city had to offer” — utility discounts, low-income transit passes and summer programs for kids. This may seem superficially unrelated to the kind of community building and neighborhood planning that is DON’s primary mission, but Fathi says it isn’t. “There are a lot of people who can barely afford to pay rent, so we ask ourselves, how do we meet people’s needs first and then build that capacity, and we think being a good government neighbor is the first step.”

But what the next step holds is a question that some critics say hasn’t yet been substantively answered. Dustin Washington is an experienced community organizer in Seattle and the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s local community justice program. He used to be a member of a race and social justice roundtable created by Murray and is no stranger to City Council. To him, DON’s community outreach efforts are little more than meaningless lip service to cover for the mayor’s pro-gentrification, developer-friendly agenda. “When the mayor and the City Council want to engage with developers — the folks who really hold the power in the city — they don’t have to create any of these mechanisms,” Washington says. “You can set up any mechanism that you want, but I don’t think this mayor is truly interested in engaging with voices that have been left out of the process.”

In many ways, community activists who question the mayor’s sincerity and neighborhood activists who think the mayor is trying to shut them out are coming from the same place — a profound skepticism that the city is interested in hearing what they have to say. Nyland says she understands those concerns. “Right now, we’re just planting seeds,” she says. “We might not see the results for a long time.” Nyland urges skeptics on both sides to be patient and give her a chance to earn their trust.

Over in Magnolia, at the meeting of the group formerly known as the Magnolia/Queen Anne District Council (they’re still searching for a new name), members spent more than an hour crafting a new vision statement to reflect their new mission as an organization. On the second pass, they came up with this: “This group is a catalyst for enhancing quality of life and community building by being a forum for all voices, leading to effective influence on government and in our communities through innovation, education and advocacy.” Hardly a full-throated endorsement of Nyland’s agenda, but it’s a start.

Why Did the Mayor Cut Ties to District Councils? These Folks Have Some Theories.

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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.

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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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