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Reading Beyond the Headline: Why Seattle’s Ideas Are Worth Stealing

Mayor Murray ups the ante on inclusive citizen engagement -- and helps pave the way for the rest of us.

Seattle is changing the way it works with neighborhoods.

In July, Seattle Mayor Edward B. Murray issued a bold and aggressive agenda to continue the city’s commitment to inclusive citizen participation. In an executive order, Murray writes of the real or perceived shortcomings of the city’s current system and concludes that “the Department of Neighborhoods shall initiate and lead an effort that directs all City departments to develop community involvement plans that make information and opportunities for participation more accessible to the public.”

The executive order outlines six guiding principles and calls for supportive resolutions and ordinances to be prepared and offered to the Seattle City Council for consideration on or before September 26, 2016.

Public reaction was swift. Headlines including "Celebration and Anger as Seattle's Neighborhood Council System Upended" and "Seattle's Neighborhood Councils are Exclusionary, Self-Interested 'Cartels,' and the City Wants to Cut Ties with Them" began trending on social media. As the storm gained momentum, the city issued statements attempting to defuse the hostility and more fully explain the situation.

I have a personal interest in this story. In the late 1980s, I was part of a Chattanooga delegation that traveled to Seattle seeking inspiration to transform our city. In short, we were looking for ideas to steal. Seattle was in the early stages of its neighborhood council efforts at the time, but it was already showing positive results. I enthusiastically hauled home a suitcase full of material, including the city’s manual for organizing and working with neighborhood councils.

We began to implement similar programs and supported our neighborhoods with grants and more targeted code enforcement to deal with blight such as overgrown lots and abandoned cars. Our neighborhoods awakened with a new spirit of pride. As they began to prosper, many erected signs proudly proclaiming their unique and historic identities. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Seattle for being our example. To be truthful, it was probably that early connection with Chattanooga's neighborhoods and the citizen leaders of our councils that resulted in my election as mayor in 2005.

So, as my inbox began to fill with alerts about the alarming changes underway in Seattle, I called Kathy Nyland, director of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. "Kathy," I said, "I've been following what's going on around your neighborhood councils, and I have to ask: Is the world coming to an end?" "Well, it might be," she replied. "But hopefully not as a result of this issue."

She explained the situation and what was intended by the mayor's action and, like most media firestorms, the flames began to cool and subside – at least for me. Kathy directed me to her department's web-based response that includes the mayor's executive order, a link to FAQs and other explanations. She also recommended an editorial piece that offered more detail. For those interested in cities and citizen engagement, these links are recommended reading.

While Murray’s actions may seem drastic to some, it is more a recognition of the changing realities of today and an attempt to remedy the inherent weaknesses of old citizen engagement methods put in place decades ago. In today's digital media world, many people won't attend evening council meetings. Instead, they are more likely to respond to emails, Facebook posts, tweets and other means of modern-day communication. Today’s cities are also more diverse, and reaching and engaging those diverse citizens is a problem that must be solved.  

Seattle has been a leader in recognizing and successfully addressing many of our most perplexing urban development issues before the rest of us. This success has, in turn, led to new problems for city managers that might not yet be manifesting themselves in other communities. Perhaps there is something in their Starbucks that gives them a unique ability to see the future and meet it head on while others are still sleeping peacefully. In any event, their efforts to find new ways to engage new groups of citizens holds promise for all of us who love cities.

Once again, all eyes should be focused on Seattle. We've stolen the city’s best ideas in the past, and we shouldn’t be above doing it again.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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