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As Seattle Voters Mull Amendment 19, Tacoma Serves as Example

Jennifer Wing
Fay Garneau

Many people who live in Seattle probably have a hard time naming their city council representatives. There are nine at-large positions that govern the entire city. Charter Amendment 19 on the November ballot wants to make politics more local in Seattle by having seven of those positions look out for the needs of specific districts.

The Woman Behind the Movement

The main person behind Charter Amendment 19 is Faye Garneau, a Seattle native who remembers when the Central District was the Italian neighborhood called Garlic Gulch.

“Fell in love with a north-end boy, moved to the north end of the city, which was a real shock, culturally,” she said.

Garneau has a lucrative commercial real estate portfolio. She’s been active in neighborhood politics for most of her life. The campaign for Charter Amendment 19 has traction, thanks to more than $200,000 from Garneau. While she loves her hometown, she does not like how the at-large city council operates.

“We use to have a saying that if we saw a council member come out, it must be election time. It’s difficult for one person to know the needs of over 600,000 people. It’s just an impossible job,” she said.

Charter Amendment 19 would carve Seattle into seven districts, each with about 88,000 voters. Two of the city council positions would stay at-large. Neighborhood leaders from Broadview down to the south end are working with Garneau to educate voters about what the amendment would do.

“We feel that a council member living and residing in a district is more approachable. That council member can come to community group meetings. They can doorbell, can have an office. That is a small requirement—they have to live in the district,” said Garneau.

In Tacoma, a Real-Life Example

If you want a peek at what it might be like to have a city council person represent your part of town, just look south to Tacoma. The city’s Hilltop neighborhood is in District 3, an area that has struggled for decades. Jim Price lives here, and says he’s often in touch with his local city council member, Lauren Walker.  

“She lives within three blocks of where I live. She’s very accessible, very personable. She’s very concerned about the neighborhood. Your interests and her interests are the same, which is your neighborhood,” Price said.

Walker says she enjoys overseeing a district instead of having an at-large seat because it helps her focus.

“When we run for office, doorbelling is very popular here. When I first ran, I doorbelled twice. It gave me real sense of what the constituents wanted in those areas and the differences,” she said. “When you are going citywide, you get that perspective as well, but to really be able to focus in on the local residents is great. So this is a huge successs.”

Walker points to a large new building along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way where the community health clinic will go. Several blocks from there is a Safeway grocery store. The company has threatened to close it, but Walker is fighting to keep it in the neighborhood.

Supporters of Seattle’s Charter Amendment 19 call this type of representation the “Nordstrom” customer service approach.

Some Champion At-Large System

Credit Jennifer Wing
Jim Street

Former Seattle City Council member Jim Street doesn’t support the idea of district representation. He says the governing approach forces a narrow view and gives voters fewer options.

“As a citizen, you’ve got one council member who is responsible to you and eight who are less responsible, or not responsible to you at all. So then the question is: What if your council member isn’t on the right committee? What if your council member disagrees with you or what if they aren’t effective? Where do you turn in terms of political accountability?

"I think the at-large system in Seattle gives you the ability to expect a response from all council members,” he said.

Seattle is one of the few remaining cities its size that doesn’t have a city council elected by districts or wards. Portland, Oregon and Columbus, Ohio are the others.

This is the second time Garneau has tried to convince voters that districts are the way to go. Keeping two of the council seats at large is new. It’s also similar to how Tacoma operates. This time around, the campaign has already drawn up a map to show Seattle voters what the districts would look like.

At 79, Garneau says someone else will have to carry the torch if the amendment fails.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.