What I'd do as a Councilmember...
These are just a few of the common-sense things I'll do on the City Council. All this stuff can be done at low or no cost to the taxpayers. Most of it can be done with existing staff and resources.
Reinstate and Diversify the District Councils
The City created these organizations and funded them for years. They were a conduit through which neighbors could share their concerns with City Hall, and they worked well. Mayor Ed Murray defunded them and shut them out of City Hall, claiming, with some truth, that they were too White and did not represent renters. He has replaced them with something called a "Community Involvement Commission," which is even less representative. As Councilmember, I would press the Mayor to return to the old District Council format, and I would work with the Councils to ensure they are democratic and representative of neighborhoods.
Consult with Neighborhoods on Upzones
In recent years, neighborhoods across the city have experienced a seismic shift in livability as single-family homes and duplexes are torn down and replaced with aPodments and low-rise apartment buildings. Neighbors are told that they have to "accept density," and most are willing to do that, as long as they're treated respectfully, as if they have a voice in the process. This is particularly important where long-established ethnic communities like the International District and Rainier Valley are concerned. As a Councilmember, I'd spend much of my time walking neighborhoods and meeting with people who will be affected by upzones and other infrastructure projects. I want to hear what they have to say.
Make Mother-in-law Cottages & Apartments Easier
Mother-in-law apartments and cottages could add tens of thousands of affordable housing units to our stock, without wrecking our neighborhoods. So why aren't there more of them? I've heard from many people who looked into them that there are too many obstacles to the permitting process, such as requiring off-street parking and imposing unrealistic height limits. Beyond that, the permitting process is too expensive. And too slow! I would push to expedite the review process, with the goal of reducing permitting turnaround to six weeks, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Permit review fees should be capped at an amount that's low enough to encourage more people to build.
Create an Office of Neighborhood Preservation
Seattle needs a way to determine what we're losing to rapid upzones and redevelopment. For each neighborhood that's been proposed to be upzoned or redeveloped, the Office of Neighborhood Preservation would make an inventory of any buildings with historic value and put together a brief history of the neighborhood, including testimony from people who grew up there or have lived there for a long a time. This material would be available for neighborhoods and City officials as they move through the process of approving or rejecting the changes. Special emphasis would be given to preserving the character of neighborhoods with historic concentrations of ethnic minorities. Although this idea sounds expensive, it's not. The Office of Neighborhood Preservation would be created from existing Department of Neighborhoods staff and would utilize extensive City Archive material that already exists. The ONP would not have the power to veto or slow any proposed new development. It would operate only in an advisory capacity.
Citizen Help Desk and Online Reporting for City Contractors
Most citizens have no idea how much money Seattle spends on various programs and where the money goes. And the City doesn't make it easy to find out. The information is there, but it's scattered around various offices, and the contractors aren't legally required to share this information with the public. We need to have a single, easy-to-use Web page with a current summary of all City contracts. With the click of a button, citizens could view or print a report of each City contract. The report would list the amount the contractor is being paid and the services they're providing. It would also have information about any campaign contributions those contractors or their employees made to local political campaigns. Each contractor would need to designate a person to answer questions from the public about how that contractor was using City money and whether they were meeting performance goals.
Hiring and Budget Freeze at City Hall
Seattle's economic boom has brought a boom in government bloat. The budget and staff at City Hall (Mayor and City Council) have been growing at a rate of more than 10% a year, with no concomitant 10% increase in quality of service. The Council's latest proposed annual budget is nearly $16 million! Council staff now have four aides each in addition to other support staff, with a total of 99 FTEs (full-time positions) at the City Council and another 44 in the Mayor's Office. Yet service levels have actually gone down. Through my work with the Safe Seattle Facebook page, I have documented how hundreds of phone calls and e-mails to Councilmembers (CMs) go unanswered, even when they concern urgent matters of safety. I would call for an immediate hiring and budget freeze at City Council and the Mayor's office and a review of all positions to determine whether they're needed. Before adding any more staff or spending money for operations, we need to make sure that the current staff are providing citizens with the service they're paying for.
Citywide Ombudsman’s Office
Responsiveness is one of the pillars of my campaign, and this is because Seattle has a poor reputation in this area, especially when citizens are having a problem with the Council or the Mayor's office. Citizens who need help often give up trying to work with the City when they feel no one is listening to them; this results in waste, as problems mount and have to be dealt with through lawsuits against the City or enforcement actions against citizens. They need a single office they can go to when they hit roadblocks at City Hall. There are various chains of appeal in City government, but there is no one office to which citizens can turn if they are experiencing a problem with their government. An ombudsman would break through log jams, and keep officials and citizens talking in a respectful, constructive way. The Ombudsman's Office would be an independent, appointed office like the Ethics and Elections Commission, answerable not to the Mayor or CMs but to the citizens as a whole. It would have just two or three staff members and would be funded from the budget of various offices.
School is the best place to start teaching our young people about government and their civic duty. I would spend an hour each week visiting a local public school, sitting in on classes, listening to teachers and support staff, and talking with students about how democratic government works. Besides this being a benefit to the schools, it's the best way I can think of for me to understand some of the problems our schools are facing. As the parent and grandparent of children who went to Seattle public school, I can attest that some schools are "more equal" than others. This is wrong. You can't understand how "disparity" effects people until you see it happening. That's why I'll be spending a lot of my time in school, and I will invite the Mayor and other CMs to do the same.
Five-day Response Turnaround
I have heard too many complaints from citizens who write to City Hall with important issues and never hear back. My staff and I will work to make sure citizens feel they are being heard and that their concerns are being addressed promptly. Accordingly, I will direct my aides to set up a system of triaging all calls, e-mails, and letters that come into my office. If something comes in and it's not within my scope, but I know that another City official can deal with it, I'll address it immediately, with a call to the official who can handle it and a note back to the constituent. Then I'll invite the citizen to follow up with me if they don't get a timely response. For other communications, I'll make sure that the easiest questions get answered right away, rather than having them sit in the queue. For more complex questions or problems, I'll get get back to the caller right away to assure them I'm working on it, and I'll give them a reasonable target date for a complete response. Then I'll make sure to have an answer for them by that date. Example: "I got your letter about a proposed rezone in your neighborhood. I'm looking into it and will have an answer for you in two weeks." All questions and concerns will get a personalized response within five business days.
Like private sector employees, City officials must be held accountable for their successes and failures. As a test of responsiveness by City officials, I would have my aides call around to various City offices, including the Mayor and City Council offices, with real questions and concerns. I will track response times and publish them on my official Web page. So, for example, if one of my aides called the Seattle Department of Transportation about a potentially dangerous road condition, and SDOT didn't respond for a month, I'd make that known to the public (on my Web page) and to the Director of SDOT, via private channels. Conversely, if SDOT responded promptly and effectively, I'd make that known as well, with an "attaboy" to SDOT and the specific employee(s) involved in responding to the concern.
We need more and better data on the economic impact of City policies. In recent years, the Council has created a series of far-reaching policies without first studying the impact. The recent $15-an-hour minimum wage was rushed through the Council and signed by the Mayor based on a single study that was based on other cities that were not like Seattle in several regards. Two years later, the City and $15 minimum wage proponents claimed that impacts were few, but a University of Washington study done on Seattle's actual experience strongly and credibly challenged that claim. Regardless of the actual impact, the point is that the Council did not get expert advice on possible impacts before making up its mind. (Needless to say, small business owners were not consulted, even though they were to feel the impact of the new law most strongly.) This pattern has played itself out repeatedly, from paid sick-leave legislation to a proposed city income tax. The Council takes little interest in the consequences to Seattle business of their decisions, and that needs to stop. The City should hire or contract with a professional economist who will prepare a "financial impact statement" for any legislation that could have far-reaching economic consequences, either good or bad, for the city. The City Economist could leverage the expertise of the UW schools of business and economics and would consult with local business owners to give citizens a better handle on how proposed new laws might affect them.
Taxation Transparency Tool
This application would tell citizens how much proposed taxes will cost them in advance. That would've come in handy for the latest Sound Transit 3 tax that voters approved BEFORE realizing how much it would cost them. (Yes, they could have read the fine print on the ballot measure, but who does that?) Renters often vote for property taxes on the mistaken notion that landlords will be on the hook for the increase. But landlords, rather than eating the increase in their taxes, often pass on tax levy increases on to their renters. I got the idea for a Taxpayer Transparency Tool from John Wilson, King County Tax Assessor, who told me the Assessor's office has been experimenting with the idea. It's a simple concept. Just let citizens visit a Web page and put in their home address and press a button. The TTT will then calculate how much MORE they will pay annually if a proposed levy passes. This will tell voters, in advance, exactly how much the levy will cost them. This is important information for voters to have, because they are typically sold levy bills on the basis of dollars-per-thousand of assessed value – which is a low, innocuous looking number – rather than a total tax increase, which is the more honest figure.
The TTT would also be useful for renters, because landlords typically pass on their levy increases to renters in the form of increased rents. The TTT could make a reasonable estimate of how much more a renter would pay for rent if a levy passes, based on the assessed value of their building and the number of units in it. The TTT could even be useful as a way to estimate the increased cost of sales tax increases. Voters could put in their income level and a few other bits of information and, based on that, the tool could make a reasonable estimate of how much more they'd have to pay in sales taxes based on standard spending patterns.
Lobbyist Influence Disclosure Law
I've been studying the influence of special interest groups on the City Council for years. In June, I published an extensive investigation of how one group, the ACLU, essentially wrote a bill for a Councilmember to sponsor, while the citizens were excluded. This practice is common at all levels of government, and it's a necessary evil, since legislators must be free to seek counsel from various sources as they make laws. We can curb the negative aspects of the practice by requiring our legislators to disclose any contacts they have with lobbyists or other interested parties in the course of writing laws. Let's a say a councilmember is working on a bill regarding operations of oil drilling rigs docked at Seattle ports and that councilmember is also meeting with oil executives, soliciting their advice. Shouldn't that fact be made known to the public before the Council votes on the bill, so we can decide for ourselves whose interests the councilmember is working for? Of course it should. Compliance with this regulation would be managed by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which already has the staff to do it.
How to pay for it?
Please note again that these are all things we could do with existing staff and at little or no cost to the taxpayer. The "Citizen Help Desk" proposal represents a minimal added expense to City contractors. The City Economist would be a new position, but it could be reallocated from an existing FTE. The Office of Neighborhood Preservation and Ombudsman's office could be carved out of existing departments. These would not be new offices, strictly speaking, but would simply be new functions assigned to existing staff. The other work comprises duties that I would take upon myself or assign to my aides.