Maybe it's time for district elections in Seattle politics

FIVE years ago, Seattle voters rejected by a 55-to-45-percent margin a proposal to elect members of the city council by districts rather than at-large, as is the current method.

Is 2001 the year to revisit that issue? I suggested last week it just might be, and some readers agreed. Greg Dewar is one of them.

Dewar is a Seattle-based political consultant who spent time this fall in San Francisco working on several runoff elections for the Board of Supervisors, that city's equivalent of our city council. San Francisco has just reinstated a district election system.

"I have seen both the benefits and disadvantages of such a system first hand," he told me.

San Francisco wasn't Dewar's first look at district elections for municipal government. Last year he was hired by some Seattle business people to research what such a change might mean for this city and whether voters might be receptive to it.

Dewar believes the time is ripe. There's no single irritant in civic life today, but he sees several threads of discontent. "Stitch them together and you've got something," he said.

Like just about everyone who assesses the mood of Seattle today, Dewar points to the anti-WTO outpouring late last year as a signal of discontent with the status quo.

Looking ahead, he predicts property taxes will generate a backlash among Seattle residents. Voters have authorized libraries and parks and open space and more sprucing up at Seattle Center. In February they will be asked to renew school levies. These are tax bills waiting to be added up, and they will be on the next assessment notice that goes to property owners. Some might be surprised.

Then there's the Elway poll from earlier this month that found more voters are negative than positive about how Seattle's elected officials are running things.

All this could add up to impetus for change, Dewar said. We've seen what can happen when the electorate is in a mood for change and elected officials don't respond. We could wind up with a cockamamie ballot measure by some fringe activist, a Seattle version of Tim Eyman and Initiative 695.

But what about the last try for district elections in Seattle? Wasn't that a disaster? It was, but Dewar, who clearly would like to run such a campaign in 2001, blames the backers, calling them self-styled reformists out of West Seattle. Months after that measure was defeated, we learned it was even worse--the campaign was corrupt. It was financed by Seattle businessman Tom Stewart who had a very specific beef with the council over use of his private helicopter.

Done right, with adequate financing and a broad-based coalition of supporters, Dewar said, a campaign could succeed.

Maybe, but is a general sense of voter discontent reason enough to launch electoral reform in Seattle? Probably not, but more accountability and better representation across the city are good arguments for a change.

It's a safe bet that more candidates, and possibly a new kind of candidate--folks less beholden to the city's traditional power bases--would be attracted to district elections. A district campaign is cheaper, closer to the grass roots. It's feasible a candidate could doorbell virtually all of a district, and find other ways of directly connecting with constituents.

To be sure, there could be unintended consequences if district elections were held in Seattle. In San Francisco, Dewar said, district elections resulted in fewer Asians on the Board of Supervisors. One of the problems there, he noted, is that the city's 13 districts are too small and there are no at-large seats. He suggests Seattle combine the best of both ideas, with six council members elected from districts, and three at-large, by voters from across the city.

Across America, most large cities have some form of district elections for council, and for those who have changed recently--Phoenix as well as San Francisco--the trend is to districts rather than at-large. Voters in Seattle should ask why, and examine in the coming year whether it's a good option for reinvigorating civic life here.

Mindy Cameron's column appears Sundays on editorial pages of The Times.