‘Just another budget cut’? Local advocates take aim at city’s review of neighborhood-district system

(Left, map of 13 Seattle “neighborhood districts”; right, map of 7 Seattle City Council districts. Both from seattle.gov)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

When the city Department of Neighborhoods cut its staff of neighborhood-district coordinators 5+ years ago, neighborhood advocates were upset, to say the least.

Before the cuts, the city had one coordinator for each of the 13 neighborhood districts, including the two that comprise West Seattle – Delridge and Southwest.

It would be OK, city leaders assured local community leaders – while cutting three of those 13 jobs, they were restructuring the remaining coordinators into teams by region, with this area part of the South Region, to be served by three.

But in the years since – without any further announcements – it’s dropped to 8 coordinators for the 13 districts, and the regional structure has eroded, like a bluff falling into the sea as it’s battered by waves.

Now a potential tsunami is on the way – a formal review, stemming from City Council marching orders last year, looking at whether the 13-neighborhood-district system should realign with the new 7-district City Council map – and whether the district coordinators’ work as community-to-city liaisons should change.

This review is currently out in the form of a draft report, linked here previously (but here it is again if you missed it), by DoN staffer Tom Van Bronkhorst. It assesses the situation without making recommendations, yet; part two is due out by mid-July. Last Wednesday night brought the most extensive local discussion so far – as the Southwest District Council, representing community and neighborhood groups in western West Seattle, devoted most of its June meeting to the draft report, inviting participation from the nearby Delridge Neighborhood District Council (eastern WS) and Greater Duwamish District Council, which includes South Park, Georgetown, Beacon Hill, and SODO.

SWDC’s Vicki Schmitz Block, from the Fauntleroy Community Association, said the SWDC’s committee studying this issue had one message, to leave their coordinator alone – Kerry Wade staffs, for example, both West Seattle district councils; there was a time when each of the 13 district councils had its own coordinator.

SWDC co-chair David Whiting, from the Admiral Neighborhood Association and also on that committee, talked about the brief discussion of the draft report earlier in the day at a City Council committee. He also said ANA wanted to see the 13-district status quo maintained. The draft report by Van Bronkhorst suggests that’s a common sentiment around the city:

District Councils can continue to welcome new and emerging community groups and organizations. However, expecting District Councils to be the singular focus for expanding community outreach and engagement is unfair and setting them up for failure. This is particularly true when many District Council members choose to define community as neighborhoods that are geographically based, leaving out those who build and experience community around non-geographical concepts, like language, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or issue-based interests. Some District Council members feel that engagement should focus entirely on bringing new community groups or organizations into the District Council system. Having the City engage with communities in a process that is outside or separate from the District Council system could be seen as divisive. However, it is unclear that the existing District Council system is sufficiently flexible to meaningfully serve as a voice for all Seattle residents. Our final report will include specific recommendations about a path forward that considers these concerns.

After Whiting asked for feedback from other SWDC members. Tony Fragada from the Alki Community Council said he appreciated the city’s intent to get more people involved beyond the typical demographic currently involved in neighborhood councils – which was laid out in the draft report:

In 2013, DON collected snapshot demographic information from 150 District Council members. Participation was voluntary so not all District Councils were represented. The collected results indicate that District Councils work for a limited segment of the overall population. As the charts below show, residents attending District Council meetings tend to be 40 years of age or older, Caucasian, and homeowners.

This is in contrast to the Seattle population:

Median age is 36;

34% are people of color; and

48% own their residence, while 52% rent.

(The SWDC bucks the demographic trend a bit – as co-chair Eric Iwamoto of the Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Council pointed out later, he and Whiting are people of color.)

Mary Fleck from the Genesee-Schmitz Neighborhood Council said her concern about the review is, what does it mean for the Department of Neighborhoods long term? She wondered if the mayor were interested in reducing its role, especially with the Office of Planning and Community Development one of the two departments that have been spun off from what was the former Department of Planning and Development. “My concern is that (this) is setting the foundation to get rid of” at least part of the DoN’s advocacy role.

Reps from the Junction Neighborhood Organization, West Seattle Junction Association, and Morgan Community Association reps said their groups hadn’t discussed the draft report (which was released in early May). Former SWDC co-chair Sharonn Meeks said that she personally felt it would be unfortunate to dismantle what had been in place and working for more than 10 years. Fauntleroy’s Schmitz Block said it wasn’t clear what the city was “trying to fix … it doesn’t seem to be broken.”

Co-chair Iwamoto said he doesn’t see any negatives either way, but “really want to make sure we keep the same square footage in the sandbox” and is concerned, as are others, that grant availability could be reduced. He suggested there be reviews and decisions about how neighborhood councils work, how the Department of Neighborhoods work, and then figure out how the district councils work.

Jim Edwards, who represents the Senior Center of West Seattle on SWDC, said each of the city’s 13 districts was drawn up with unique needs and he personally thought it would be “short-sighted” to throw that alignment away. “Each council reflects the needs of that district, separately.” Neither that organization nor the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce has discussed the review, but Pete Spalding, representing the Chamber on SWDC, had a lot to say – he also is a longtime leader with the Delridge NDC, there as a rep from the Pigeon Point Neighborhood Council. Spalding talked about many changes, including the reduction in number of Neighborhood Service Centers, once known as “Little City Halls” – West Seattle currently has just one, in the same building as Southwest Pool and the Southwest Teen Life Center, but until five years ago had two, one in North Delridge (which moved to the current location) and one in The Junction (shut down in June 2011 and never replaced). Spalding said he’s seen many budget cuts over the years and as far as he’s concerned, this review “is just another budget cut.”

Greater Duwamish’s Melissa Jonas, speaking on behalf of South Park (whose reps couldn’t come), said that regarding the boundaries, “South Park is neither fish nor fowl” – while SP is in Seattle City Council District 1, everybody else in GD is in City Council District 2, and SP has a century of history with Georgetown – Jonas also pointed out that GD has somehow functioned without a district coordinator for the past six months, and that has underscored the value of those coordinators.

“It’s a heck of an admin lift” without one, she notes, adding that the Southeast DC is without one, too. “Those are very low-income neighborhoods, largely, a lot of seniors, non-English speakers … underserved …” and even that word is overstating the service they get, she said. If they aren’t going to get help, they will be on hiatus, she said – they cannot do the city’s business. “This model cannot be volunteer-based,” Jonas said. Among other things, a city e-mail address is needed in order to conduct city business under Freedom of Information Act. So basically, they’re pushing back, and she doesn’t see the downside. She says that the conversations leading up to the “statement of legislative intent” review didn’t go into how much work the volunteer members do.

(After the meeting, we contacted Frank Nam, the relatively new DoN manager who supervises district coordinators, about the status of NDC help for Greater Duwamish. He confirmed that currently there are 8 coordinator “slots” for the 13 districts, and while none is currently assigned to the GD council, he said it had received administrative help from himself and Jenny Frankl – who had been in the “South Region” but recently coordinated the Youth Voice, Youth Choice process: “We have published their agenda and meeting notes onto the website and added their meetings to our public calendar. We supported them through a complicated NSF process. The chairs have asked for administrative support and every request in that manner has been granted. In terms of the position opening, we are currently weighing our options, including a short-term TES (Temporary Employment Service) hire.”)

Back to Wednesday’s meeting:

Mat McBride, chair of Delridge Neighborhoods District Council, also was there, and spoke most forcefully of “hating” what the DoN review has said so far. He said the neighborhood groups comprising DNDC “are unanimous in reviling this” review. He went back to the cuts made in coordinators from the original one-per-district, and recalled that they changed to zones, and since “have gradually weaned off that as well … the staff reductions continue.” Groups have continued to advocate for restoring those cuts. They have so much territory to cover – “there’s already too much territory to cover in the boundaries. One argument (for changing them) …” doesn’t make sense, he said, because City Council Districts are even supposed to be frequently re-evaluated, and if you’re near the border, you’ll never know quite what you’re part of.

“The district’s job is to be an advocate for that district, what’s going on, what’s needed, how do you get what you need.” It’s not just about the grant money – “we view our role as advocates as far greater than our role as revenue generators … the things we have been able to accomplish by putting pressure on the city … are far far greater than (the grant money districts get).” McBride said some districts will simply “shatter” without support, and he doesn’t know of any “on the ‘yes, please’ side of this conversation.” Overall: “This idea’s bad. … We hate it, we hate it with hating hate.”

Regarding the City Council staff deployment discussed in the draft report, “I expect that anyway … I don’t expect that to replace the work (the Department of Neighborhoods does).”

Co-chair Whiting spoke next, voicing the strongest words of potential support: “I’m of a different opinion. I don’t know that aligning based on the electoral districts is such a bad idea.” His reasons include: He believes the city will be tracking resources – expended and otherwise – by council district. He cited recent examples of interactions with city employees that suggested it’s already going that way. So he thinks “we should at least explore … aligning our groups along (council) district boundaries.” That could increase strength in lobbying the elected representative, for example, he says. He also said that much of the lobbying he’s seen isn’t from the district council – “we’re not the only source of influence” – but rather from issue-oriented groups, neighborhoods, etc.

Whiting added that he also sees the need for non-geographic involvement and advocacy. This too was mentioned in the first cut of the report:

Seattle’s population demographics are changing and DON needs to re-envision our approach to public engagement; re-think how to best connect with underrepresented communities; and retool our strategies to reach a broader cross-section of Seattles population, including ethnic and cultural groups, seniors, youth, home-owners, and renters.

Outreach needs to be more than cookie-cutter presentations to District Councils and Community Councils. We need to expand, tailor, and coordinate our efforts to eliminate barriers, encourage broader community participation, and build resilient engagement strategies.

Whiting said that he sees the change train coming down the track and that the “neighborhood district vs. council district” situation will eventually be seen as a “clumsy anachronism.” Overall, he suggests they at least “think about (changing).”

Spalding says the city departments are tracking spending etc. at councilmembers’ request because they’re building their campaigns.

Co-chair Iwamoto says he sees both sides of it. “What if, say, [City Councilmember] Lisa Herbold had a monthly or quarterly meeting to discuss things that cross the district … I don’t want another meeting but … get to know your neighbors.”

While saying she couldn’t comment on what is in essence a process that could radically change her responsibilities, coordinator Wade talked about some of what she’d been hearing and about the concept of bringing in non-geographic communities, adding: “Internally, the conversation is a little bit different than what you’re seeing.” She noted that her department reports up to the mayor so cannot advocate to councilmembers.

Schmitz Block went back to the point that DoN’s been underfunded for years in terms of dealing with districts, so if something’s broken, that should be looked at. “We don’t make huge decisions here, what we offer is a platform where people can bring their issues – we never hear about the good stuff, we hear about the problems.” And she said it’s clearly a problem for any district council not to have staffing.

McBride then said that the needs and interests of the districts as currently drawn are very different, and expecting the volunteer councils to take on even more responsibility in advocating for each others’ needs is unrealistic. He says he doesn’t think that “changing a map boundary is going to change that … What I do believe is that you’ll get disenfranchisement.” And some advocacy will fade away; “across the city, one pocket of that gigantic piece of land will be well-represented … focused on (that area) … What’s wrong with it is the idea that you should be expected to care about concerns that aren’t yours.” Overall, in his view, Van Bronkhorst’s draft report, he said, contains information that “is at best disingenuous.”

Before meeting’s end, SWDC reps passed a resolution to support keeping the 13-neighborhood-district system. No one voted against it, but three people abstained because the groups they represent had yet to discuss the issue.

WHAT’S NEXT: The report is a response to City Council direction from last year. So once the rest of it is out next month, it’s ultimately up to councilmembers to decide what, if anything, to do about it. Changes/cuts could be brought up in the next city budget process later this year.

3 Replies to "'Just another budget cut'? Local advocates take aim at city's review of neighborhood-district system"

  • Melissa June 6, 2016 (8:21 am)

    If the DON and City Council were serious about having more representation from renters and immigrant communities they would be providing interpreters and funding positions to help renters know their rights.  

  • Neighbor June 6, 2016 (9:16 am)

    How is it we are experiencing so much growth and yet have so little revenue to show for it? How is it that the developers in every other major city pay to play yet here we are giving huge tax breaks to them?

    We are being robbed and it’s by design.

  • John June 6, 2016 (9:36 am)

    The DoN Report is obviously a challenge to the ingrown and narrow status quo.  That status quo does not represent the communities it represents in makeup or behavior (just examine the people speaking against this).

     They are as former mayor writes composed overwhelmingly of white, homeowners over the age of 40 who have the luxury of time and dedication to pursue their interests.  Chair positions are often unchallenged.  Committees difficult to fill.  Community involvement is minimal save for ‘hot button’ issues, usually NIMBY oriented that pack the house. 

    The election of our own Councilperson should lessen the need for these outgrown groups that despite decades of power have failed to engage the whole community that they represent.

    It is a system in need of complete overhaul to truly represent the changes of the community. 

    As a white over 40 homeowner with the time to post here, I also cannot represent the new majority of younger more diverse renters in our  community.

Sorry, comment time is over.