Back to the voting board

It's been just five years since Seattle voters rejected a switch to a City Council elected by geographic district, but old ideas never die.

A new group studying changes to how council members are elected will soon begin meeting, convened by South End activist Roger Pence (you can reach him at Dawsonst@compuserve.com). All the usual suspects are interested: the pro-district veterans, the Citizens for Proportional Representation, and Pence hopes, a few of the young radicals energized by the protests against last month's World Trade Organization meetings. With the City Council lacking an Asian member for the first time in two decades, organizers also hope some minority support will materialize.

Good luck, folks, but you really couldn't have picked a worse time to raise this issue. A change in how council members are elected is best sold as a protest against the current council. In 1995, the council was weighed down by think-alike yuppies who churned out unanimous votes even on the most controversial of issues. The current version of the City Hall Nine features a ton of political diversity and seven members who have served less than a single term. Hey, this council has more new blood than Keith Richards after a trip to the clinic. What exactly has Heidi Wills or Judy Nicastro done in their first ten days in office to get that throw-the-bums-out spirit flowing?

Admittedly, the city's at-large, by-position council system, where voters throughout the city vote for all nine city council members, is an incumbent preservation society. Voters, who have enjoyed six open seat races in the last two elections, will soon be reacquainted with the old system of insurmountable incumbents facing token opposition (think Peter Steinbrueck versus Lenora Jones times nine).

However, enough good arguments to sink a change still exist. Under district elections, voters who now elect all nine council members would get a vote in just one race (on a fully districted council) or in fewer than half the races (using one of the formations split between by-district and at-large council members). A district plan would also be vulnerable to the same insinuations of pork-barrel politics and favor-trading that sunk the proposed 1995 city charter amendment at the polls.

Proportional representation, another electoral system that despite being widely used in other countries defies any simple explanation, would give a voice to minority political groups (such as pro-life Republicans), but ignores the concept that public officials are stronger when bearing a real mandate from the voters. Even under a full district system, council members would represent a majority of the people in a given neighborhood. Proportionally elected council members would need clickers to count all the times the mayor would say: "As the only elected official who represents all the people. . . ."

Having editorially supported the 1995 district effort, this columnist isn't writing off the proposals on the table, just questioning the wisdom of such an effort. Remember, folks, a good idea presented at the wrong time still ends up a loser.

Council chaos

Nothing's more festive than a ceremony held in an armed camp. An overstatement perhaps, but the line of 18 uniformed police officers along one wall of Council Chambers gave the year's first City Council meeting a definitely martial air. Although the audience was packed with friends, family members, and supporters of the five council members scheduled to be sworn in, a group of about 30 WTO protesters standing in the back of the room got most of the attention. One protester was even ejected for shouting at new guy Jim Compton as he was taking his oath. Aside from a few hisses aimed at Council member Margaret Pageler, the ceremonies proceeded in a fairly orderly, although hardly joyous manner. New Council member Heidi Wills seemed a bit nervous: She held up her left hand rather than her right while being sworn in (kind of like Mayor Schell forgetting to check that veto box), but they let her be on council anyway.

The demonstrators then unrolled a huge banner reading "We do not support Pageler for Council President." All eight of her colleagues disagreed, however, and unanimously elected Pageler to the post. The new prez wasted no time in getting even: Instead of cutting short her planned remarks, Pageler delivered the whole speech and bored the We-Hate-WTO rowdies into submission. By the time she was finished talking, the protesters' big sign was sagging and so were they. Hey, if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, pummel 'em with policy.

No hard feelings

Former City Council candidate Alec Fisken got his new job through an unusual benefactor—onetime primary rival Jim Compton. Now chair of the council's WTO Accountability Review Committee, Compton tabbed Fisken as the lead staffer for its investigation process, which should last at least three months.

One question though—isn't the former marine industry publisher a free trade guy? Not so fast, says Fisken, who notes that his publications were "nuts and bolts" industry journals, featuring stories on things like boats and docks, not global tariffs. His diverse r鳵m頡lso includes stints as an investment banker, alternative newspaper publisher (three years at the helm of the old Seattle Sun), and City Hall bureaucrat.

This is also a nice political plum for Fisken, who managed a respectable showing in his primary election race and probably welcomes a chance to keep himself in the public eye. (A word of caution: The WTO has also kept Mayor Paul Schell in the public eye, but he doesn't seem particularly happy about it.)

 
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