Council member supports redistricting of Seattle — O’Brien believes new change emphasizes community

By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly

The Seattle City Council could face radical change in leadership under a new redristricting plan set in place by voters. Starting in 2015, Seattle will elect a majority of City Council members by district.  Seven of the nine councilmembers will be elected by district and two will remain at-large posts.  Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien thinks that the new plan is a good opportunity that should foster more opportunities for individuals to run for office.

“In my view, the strongest reasons to support the move to districts are to strengthen our local democracy by reducing barriers to running for office, allowing for more competitive races and encouraging candidates to run on more community-level issues.”

“District elections, paired with a public campaign financing option, could open the door to more grassroots candidates and ensure the healthy, robust local democracy the people of Seattle want and deserve,” Councilmember O’Brien explained.   The redistricting matter will affect the Councilmember as his seat is up in just two years instead of the previous 4.

Also, the change will affect the logistics of running for office.  “There will be more people on the stage and the dynamics will be different than in the past,” stated O’Brien.  Instead of four or five candidates discussing issues at public forums, there will be nine since all positions will be up for re-election.

Per the new Charter Amendment voted and approved upon blast November, all 9 positions will be up for grabs in 2015.  In 2017, the 2 At-Large Positions will be available for 4 year terms.  In 2019, the 7 district positions will be available for 4 year terms and in 2021 the 2 At-Large Positions will be available for 4 years terms.

The new way of choosing Seattle City Council Members was created by a citizens group that drafted the Charter Amendment to the City of Seattle Charter.  The Charter Amendment defined when elections happen and candidates will have to choose if they will run for a particular district or At-Large.  According to the text of the Charter Amendment that was approved by voters, the reasoning for the change was, “To ensure members of the city council are closer to the people they represent, to enable voters to better know their Councilmembers, and to provide a mixed system of district and at-large representation.”  The districts are divided based on the 2010 U.S. Census.

With the passage of the Charter Amendment last November, the current members of the City Council are determining what it means for them and the future of the City Council.  “Does the fact that there will be district representatives change how we think about how the city operates and specifically how the council operates,” advised Councilmember O’Brien, “We are in the asking questions stage as opposed to having answers. We are all trying to figure out what that means to us.”

Should there be concern for communities, especially those with a strong ethnic presence with the new redistricting plan?  Will their community issues be addressed under the new format?

“Some of the concerns that we’ve heard is, ‘Will our voice be strengthened through this redistricting or is going to be diluted,’” Councilmember O’Brien said, “I think that is going to be determined.” The Councilmember indicated that his office has been proactive in finding out the concerns of different communities.

Notably, he has been proactive in working with immigrant and refugee populations in Southeast Seattle, Delridge and Northeast Seattle.  He has worked with the Vietnamese community and Friends of Little Saigon in building a Community Center somewhere in Seattle.  His work has helped commit the city to help fund a center for the Vietnamese community.

A potential positive with the new voting districts is that candidates may be able to spend less on campaigns and will not have to worry about fundraising as much thus allowing candidates to focus on needs of the community. Councilmember O-’Brien notes that the average winning Councilmember has spent $245,000 to win a race.  The redistricting plan could cut down on campaign spending which is a barrier for some to run for office.  “I’ve run contested races twice; I have raised $140,000 each time,” stated Councilmember O’Brien, who is a proponent of campaign finance reform. (end)

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