Story by Tracy Record
Video/photos by Patrick Sand
West Seattle Blog co-publishers
“Let’s not throw out the whole system – let’s make it better.”
That was the theme last night for a gathering of longtime community volunteers who were, at times, furious:
“We are owed an apology. In a city known internationally for volunteerism, we have a mayor who has vilified volunteers … it’s inexcusable.”
At times, gracious:
“What resonates in this room is the hope and optimism you all bring to the table.”
And at times, incredulous:
“The news last week was a surprise.”
That last declaration is how Mat McBride, chair of the Delridge Neighborhoods District Council, began last night’s gathering, a dramatic expansion of what was supposed to be a routine, “sleepy” monthly edition of the DNDC’s meeting, and instead, because of a mayoral decree a week earlier, became a rally of reps from the city’s 13 NDCs. Here’s our video of the entire gathering, in two parts:
The objective, as McBride described it, was to show that the “13 District Councils … are representative of more than the narrative we are currently being cast by … that a bad decision has been made, and that bad decisions can and should be reversed.”
That “narrative” was the July 13th mayoral declaration that the groups should be thrown on the scrap heap (WSB coverage here), replaced to a yet-to-be-outlined “engagement” system with an appointed “Community Involvement Commission,” because members are allegedly mostly older white homeowners. (The survey that made the proclamation has been called into question, as has the inference that the volunteers should be cut loose because of their age, race, and economic status.)
“Right now if you read the [regional] press, you’ll see a story that district councils have 15 people … tend to be white, tend to be old, tend to own houses. (But) when a district council gathers, hundreds, thousands of people are represented at the table … we are a representative democracy. It is not true, the story that’s currently being told.”
We counted at least 60 people in the room at Highland Park Improvement Club; McBride greeted them all in DNDC style – cheering and hand-waving – calling out the names of each Neighborhood District Council that was here, and then asking for a show of hands from those representing other groups, such as the community councils that feed into the ND councils.
He acknowledged that some of what’s in the report – the need to expand the groups’ means of outreach – are things that district council members agree with, things they’ve been suggesting, requesting, for years.
So what is it these groups DO do?
The moderated-forum format bounced around the room.
From Dan Sanchez, chair of the Central Area District Council: “Provide a forum for our member organizations to disseminate and receive information from each other, as well as from the city.” They might hear from a developer, or maybe a representative of a city department. that.
Gabrielle Gerhard, immediate past chair of the Northeast District Council, said “we do something very similar – the power in our district council is when” they share information, at the table, “in a way that’s not shared over social media or other things.” They “try to build collaboration and connection,” she said.
Melissa Jonas identified herself as co-chair of the “organization formerly known as the Greater Duwamish District Council … I don’t know what symbol we’re going to choose, but it’s going to be great. We do the checkbox thing where (city) people contact us” to try to get the word out about things – “and we say, do you have translated materials? They say no, we don’t have money for that, and we say, that’s funny, neither do we.” She says their DC is not reflected in the “white, old, homeowner” label that the mayor affixed to the councils; her co-chair, she said, is a young Latino man. “We build relationships … we are a human braintrust that cannot be beat by Find It Fix It … I freakin’ love social media, but it does not take the place of looking the neighbors in their face.”
Jonas also talked about grant writing, being “armchair transportation experts,” armchair experts on telling people where to go and what to do about problems … “We do what we’re asked and more, like everyone else in this room … The way we have been portrayed and the way we have been described … I’ve been a volunteer coordinator for a long time and I would never treat anyone, expecting them to come back, the way that we have been treated.”
Charlie Bookman, vice chair of the Queen Anne/Magnolia District Council: “I want to touch on one thing that has not been mentioned yet … We’ve been blessed with strong community councils. We used to compete with each other for city resources – we’ve built those relationships together that now, for some years, there’s been a highly supportive environment … we look at new parts, offleash dog areas, P-patches, business districts with rehabbed sidewalks, in both communities, because we work together – the district council has been the vehicle.”
Jeff Hayes from South Park, an outspoken community advocate, said he is not on a community or district council but talked about the value of neighborhood participation, because the people in the city who can help neighborhoods “are getting farther and farther away from us” and the neighborhoods themselves “are getting lost.” The mayor’s decision “is not the way to go … we should be getting more in touch with our neighborhoods than farther away.”
“That’s why we’re here tonight!” yelled McBride from the state.
Mark Mendez, co-chair of the North District Council from Lake City, said his dad’s from Puerto Rico and that he loves his neighborhood. “I just want to say I’m proud to be part of the NDC and we do some great things – for example the light rail station that was off the table for a while, City Councilmember Debora Juarez worked with us, and we got that station back” in the plan. “Lake City/Bitter Lake neighborhoods … we were left out, NDCs worked together, said what about the social equity lens – very successful story. It’s not like we’re not trying to outreach to diverse communities, everyone in that room wants this -”
“YES!” they yell.
Mendez continues, “Give us the tools, translators, fun events … let’s not throw out the whole system, let’s make it better.”
Catherine Weatbrook, who chairs the City Neighborhood Council – to which the neighborhood-district councils send reps – said: “One of the things I’ll specifically call out, the troubleshooting. We are empowered as community members, when we see yet another (problem) – we empower the neighbors, and we’re empowered to go out there and get city departments to respond. We’re the Find It Fix It in some ways.” She had a few “quick points” to made: “When has a city department relied on volunteers to do their job of outreach?” She says, “there’s also a great misconception in the narrative that somehow a community council is a district council. It’s not. Those are some of the groups represented at the District Council table” but she lists other groups – “we are open to anyone in the community … the Department of Neighborhoods used to go out and recruit these organizations to come in. But that hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened for years.” She says the District Coordinators are great people but they are not spending a full position on assisting them, so saying more than that is “misrepresenting what’s going on.”
Longtime community volunteer Pete Spalding, who has served on the Pigeon Point Neighborhood Council and Delridge Neighborhoods District Council and City Neighborhood Council, says, “I say this not to brag but I have a certain amount of institutional knowledge of how the (system) works.” He’s worked with now five Department of Neighborhoods directors, three mayors – “I have watched each of these administrations make substantial cuts” to the Department of Neighborhood. He cites examples of community-involvement achievement such as Vivian McLain, “the godmother of the Delridge District Council” and talks about the creation of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, the people who revitalized and expanded the Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Council, people working to build a skatepark at Delridge “when other communities in West Seattle did not want that skatepark.”
He says it’s important to look at the people at the table when criticizing the demographics of a DC – is each person only representing themselves, or representing the people who participate in the activities of their organization, or the people who live in the neighborhoods they are representing, etc. “(Right now), the city of Seattle has 45 boards and commissions. Why do we need to abolish one voice for a lesser voice?” He notes the Seattle Police Department alone has 10 demographic advisory councils. “Are we perfect? Of course not. Should we stop advocating for causes? Of course not. Should we think things will get better on their own? Of course not. … Don’t punish those who show up … Give us back the tools you’ve taken away from us … Give us back the district coordinators [a roster that was cut five years ago] … WOrk with us in making my Delridge community a better place for everyone.”
“In this room tonight, there are tens of thousands of people,” McBride says. And he talks about representing those people. He says there’s a question the city should have asked to shape the conversation: “What are your goals? What do you want to accomplish?” A summit came up with eight separate goals. “Create and promote the Delridge neighborhood and common identity. Develop business associations to spur economic growth. Maximize places and events where people can come together to develop trust and reciprocity. Promote a green Delridge” – not just building up greenspace but aso embracing sustainability practices. “Strengthen the schools. Create a boulevard feel along the Delridge district.”
They’ve made progress on some of those goals, not so much on others. “But when we get together, that’s what’s on our mind.”
A community-council rep from outside West Seattle said she wanted to say why the district councils don’t get credit for what they bring to the city. She talked about a 27-year record of grants – “I would defy the mayor or anyone in the city to say these grants are any kind of example of ‘not in my backyard’ – I have to draw the conclusion that the mayor did not look at this record.”
Donna Hartmann-Miller from the Maple Leaf Community Council, talked about what needs to be done to ensure more can get involved: “We’re working right now how to divide up some of the responsibilities … every so often we have to take a break because it’s so much work, so much effort, so many hours .. we’re trying to figure out how to take our volunteer duties and divide them into bite-size pieces, to make it easier for neighborhood people (to help out).” Why can’t the Department of Neighborhoods provide these groups with web sites? she asks. If they could be supportive in more ways, they could “reach out to more of the people that we want to reach out to. … We’re trying to figure out how to let people participate without overwhelming them.”
Central Area’s Sanchez: “We’re a community of community councils,” a way for them to support each other. He talked about his DC members including a rep from an African-American veterans’ group who “worked out a meeting space for his group and a way to communicate with (another group) … that happened just last week.” He also says the councils “fix the city’s screwu-ps” and mentioned that the report that followed the mayor’s declaration last week is an “indictment of the Department of Neighborhoods.”
Around the room, cries of YES!
Then: A man stood up to say yes, he’s a white, old homeowner – David Levinson from the Downtown District Council: “The truth of the matter is that the mayor would prefer things moving from the top down rather than the bottom up.”
Another person says she feels like they’ve been playing “whack-a-mole” rather than being able to look beyond the tasks at hand. Referring to the city’s current outreach practices, she said, “I don’t want to go to any more open houses. I don’t want to put any more sticky notes (on easel boards).” She says it would make more sense for the outreach to go to where the people are.
And as for the city saving money by whacking the district-council system: A district council gets $500 a year from the city, she points out. Many don’t even spend that.
She also speaks highly of neighborhood district councils, as people with integrity, people who can be trusted, people who will treat you respectfully, people who will listen to you.
Next topic: What needs to be accomplished in communities?
Lake City still doesn’t have a full-service community center, “and it’s a disgrace,” says another speaker.
Many areas still need sidewalks, and “public-safety investments,” the shouts come from around the room. “More hours for community centers, for kids’ programs.”
“We should mention Myers Way, says Gunner Scott of the Highland Park Action Committee, referring to another mayoral announcement from a week earlier, “and that (happened) because of relationships. Also, annexation of our friends next door (North Highline) is still on the table, and it’s looking likely, and if (we) hadn’t spoken up and said, why aren’t you talking to White Center, Top Hat, (about Myers Way), we would have had a huge warehouse there.”
From Nancy Folsom of North Delridge Neighborhood Council: “Let’s stop using grants for infrastructure – pitting neighborhood against neighborhood.”
McBride says the next question that he feels DCs should have been asked before getting the guillotine is, “What do you need, district councils, and how can we, the (Department of Neighborhoods), support you?”
Michael Taylor-Judd of NDNC says, “We have been asking for years, a lot of us in this room, for a number of things – help doing outreach, help organizing e-mail lists so that when the city departments come out to us they have a go-to list … help with translation, a lot of the stuff that’s in the 2009 audit, which the city told us, we need to cut back, we’ll get back to this – and then failed to get back to this and it’s really aggravating to see our mayor basically walk through what’s in that audit and (blame the councils for what’s not getting done).” He adds, “It’s also incredibly aggravating for someone in a neighborhood with a lot of renters, a lot of income (diversity), to be told we’re not doing enough,” and he cites an example of NDNC volunteers walking materials door to door to inform people about the DESC (Cottage Grove Commons) development. “So not only is the city cutting resources to us, and then hiring people to do (what we asked them to do). There seems to be a real conflict between what they ask us to do and what they don’t fund us for.”
What could the DON do for the district councils?
Sanchez: “All that stuff the mayor just promised to the group he’s going to form.”
Then a note of defiance: “If the mayor hurries up and (goes through with) this I think we’ll be free to endorse mayoral candidates.”
Troy Meyers from the Squire Park Community Council says his group delivers 3,000 newsletters door to door. He’s on two district councils. “I’m able to do all those things because I’m nearly 50. I couldn’t do them when I was 20, when I was 30.” ”
“What I would like is respect,” says Amanda Kay Helmick of the Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Council. She looks at a city person in the room and says “You don’t come to our meetings, you say what you think we do, but you don’t KNOW what we do. What I would like is respect.”
Bookman from Magnolia-Queen Anne. “I’d like to frame the question as, what do we want from the mayor?”
Spalding says he wants the $1.2 million the DON claims it’s spending on district coordinators, “to be spent on our neighborhoods.”
McBride says “I want all 13 district coordinators back.”
Another woman says they’d like social-media training, they’d like video cameras so they could record meetings and publish them online. It’s not an easy thing to do, she mentions. “I would like newsletter training – we deliver our newsletter to 4,000 people.”
Yet another person acknowledges again that they know the participants need to be more diverse: “That takes support (for recruitment). Whoever’s here from the city, I want that message taken back.”
And then, what might be the declaration of the night:
“We are owed an apology. In a city known internationally for volunteerism, we have a mayor who has vilified volunteers … it’s inexcusable.”
Ron Angeles, a former Neighborhood District Coordinator who grew up in Delridge and now sits on the Delridge Neighborhood District Council as a rep of Southwest Youth and Family Services, says he wants to add on about what the councils could use. “This whole concept of district councils came out of a meeting like this. It didn’t come out of City Hall.”
David Whiting and Eric Iwamoto are the co-chairs of western West Seattle’s Southwest District Council, stood up. Whiting said, “I don’t really see this as [expected to be] a representative body, not necessarily everything that goes on between Alki and Arbor Heights. … I don’t claim to speak for all those folks and all the work they do. The 2009 made it clear we’re not … so I don’t know why we’re considered flawed because we’re not representing all the demographics of the city at large.” He speaks of the difficulty of coaxing volunteerism.
Whiting also mentioned that when they were working on the 47th/Admiral light, the city was telling him nothing was being done on other issues …and then suddenly the Admiral Way Safety Project erupted, in a “one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing” mode. “I’m one of the founding members of West Seattle Bike Connections. Use us as a resource. … And stop nickeling and diming for us for every little thing.” The city couldn’t come up with $250 for stenciling on the sidewalk by the new 47th/Admiral light – so Admiral NA did – “and then (SDOT director) Scott Kubly took credit for it in his opening remarks” at the dedication. Whiting talks about community-sponsored projects such as the Summer Concerts at Admiral series that opens tonight, presented by ANA.
McBride then suggests three questions that could have framed the conversation that the mayor decided not to have with district-council reps, questions he said would have preserved the relationship the city has with its most loyal and dedicated volunteers, built up a tried-and-trued model, and produced results the mayor is now seeking through untested methods.
Cindi Barker, past member of City Neighborhood Council (from Morgan Community Association), says that group was meant to look at what’s being proposed and try to get some feedback. It has given guidance, “a springboard for your thoughts, and your engagement.” The CNC, too, has done what the city refused to do, Barker said, giving the example of creating a much-needed contact list that city staffers said didn’t exist – so the volunteers comprising the CNC made it happen instead.
Laine Ross, current co-chair of city neighborhood council – “What resonates in this room is the hope and optimism you all bring to the table.It’s really heartfelt.” Regarding what’s missing, “you hear it over and over again, its’ sort of the indictment to the community working hard to bring people together, a lot of it has come through neighborhood matching funds.”
But as for concern about the city cutting off support: “A lot of people in this room would say we haven’t HAD a lot of support.” She says she feels hopeful being here tonight, and promises the CNC will have a forum looking to the future.
Then came Skip:
“I have an opinion that this mayor is not stupid. He has read Machiavelli. … So what do we do? We don’t just have one meeting, Mat. this should be considered just the first meeting. We should ahve a second first meeting and a third first meeting until everybody’s in the room and then we’ll tell the mayor what to do and he’ll do it or else we’ll (unelect him).” This can’t just be something we’re going to let the city council get by with … we need to go to all our city council people in our districts and (talk to them). If you hear something coming, it’s a train on the tracks … we’re not going to be run over by the mayor’s train.”
This area’s City Councilmember Lisa Herbold was in attendance for most of the meeting but did not speak.
Her presence was punctuated, she explained to WSB afterward, by an appearance at the concurrent Morgan Community Association meeting.
McBride: “This conversation should and will continue” and says another district council should host the next chapter. “We’re here to talk.”
Another person said the city has never granted requests to give the district councils each other’s rosters. Someone on the sidelines says he’ll have that by Sunday.
A Highland Park Action Committee member asked those assembled, “Is it your feeling that this could be reversed?”
“ABSOLUTELY,” someone says.
“It’s how politics is done in Seattle,” McBride says.
“So, confidence is high that we can make him change?” asks the HPAC member.
Someone else speaks up and says they’re not so optimistic.
Whiting of SWDC mentioned being at City Hall for last week’s announcement and hearing the mayor say he wouldn’t go back on his own executive order.
Shortly thereafter, at McBride’s request, the remaining time was given to attendees to do what they say they do best – connect. The room buzzed, as the chairs were folded and other tasks handled … by volunteers.
WHAT’S NEXT: The mayor’s plan requires a resolution to be drafted to go before the City Council within the next few months.