City Council Office Hours Invite Constituents to Voice Concerns

City Council members are now holding neighborhood office hours. Is it an effective way to govern?
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

On a bright afternoon at the Ballard library, constituents arrive in a steady stream for their chance to speak for 10–15 minutes with Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien, who represents northwest Seattle’s District 6. He’s holding his in-district “office hours” for constituents. On this day, they include grizzled baby boomer guys in cargo pants, moms in workout clothes with smart running backpacks and harried couples whose kids play in the corner as a growing crowd mills around. What they all seem to have in common is a desire to walk away from their meeting with a sense of accomplishment—help with an underwater mortgage, reassurance about parking worries in their neighborhood or knowing they’ve lodged their grievances with someone at City Hall.

Holding in-district office hours is a new experience for the council members who represent the city’s seven geographic districts, each with about 80,000 residents. After more than a century of electing all nine City Council members citywide, in 2013 voters decided to upend the previous civic order by splitting the council into districts and electing just two council members at large. Council members, who previously focused on issues that came up in their committees (transportation, land use, utilities and so on), now find themselves responsible for answering neighborhood-specific questions, such as: “Why do basements on my street flood when it rains?” “How can I get more police patrols in my neighborhood?” “Why are my utility rates so high?” “Can I get a crosswalk on my street?”

There is little doubt that this opportunity for one-on-one contact improves access for constituents. But with a day that still has only 24 hours, and a public that doesn’t always understand the types of issues that the council addresses, are office hours helping council members govern effectively? Do they represent a good use of the councilors’ time?

Some council members still seem a bit wary of the shift to retail politics, preferring to set up appointments with handpicked constituents. Others, like O’Brien (who holds office hours at different locations every few weeks), are throwing the doors open, greeting residents—no matter what they want to talk (or complain) about—on a first-come, first-served basis, anywhere from once a week to once a month. Of the seven, six hold regular office hours; the seventh, District 3 council member Kshama Sawant, is still looking for a district office, according to City Council staff.

 

On that day at the library, O’Brien’s early visitors arrive with small-scale problems. The first woman says she’s been swindled by an attorney and asks O’Brien for help keeping her home out of foreclosure. O’Brien offers to contact the Washington State Bar Association; his assistant, Sarra Tekola gets the woman’s contact information. An architect tells O’Brien he doesn’t like the idea of “building a house for a car”—that is, a parking garage—in every new development, but says that until there is reliable transit, developers should be required to build parking. O’Brien gently disagrees.

Later, another woman, fed up with what she describes as brazen drug sales in Ballard Commons Park, which is visible from the library window, asks O’Brien sarcastically, “If I need cash and I’ve got about 20 OxyContin from surgery, is [selling drugs] a viable liquidity option for me?” Eventually—when there are more people than O’Brien can meet in the time remaining—the session turns into a cordial, town-hall dialogue between O’Brien and a small crowd whose concerns include homelessness, public safety and mental health services.

O’Brien, who has become a lightning rod for activists who accuse him of pushing too much density into northwest Seattle while ignoring problems they say are caused by a growing homeless population, says he gets a lot out of these sometimes testy tête-à-têtes.

“These folks could, of course, call and get an appointment with me [at City Hall],” he notes, but they rarely do. Perhaps, he suggests, they’re intimidated by the trappings of City Hall, with its security doors and formal conference rooms. And while he says that he won’t necessarily be able to solve the problems his constituents bring him, there may be little things he can do to help.

The scene at sally bagshaw’s temporary office in the Belltown Community Center on a Wednesday afternoon couldn’t be more different from O’Brien’s cacophonous library confab. Bagshaw represents District 7, which includes downtown, Queen Anne and Magnolia. Legislative aide Alyson McLean taps away on her laptop as Bagshaw makes unhurried small talk with the afternoon’s first scheduled visitor, a retiree and recent widower who lives in Insignia Towers, a condo development just up the street. He tells Bagshaw that he’s concerned about plans for two 40-story hotel and residential towers next door to his building.

Noting that the proposed towers echo another controversial Belltown development, which will block water views from Escala, a luxury condo building on Fourth Avenue, Bagshaw mentions her efforts to adopt tower spacing requirements that would ensure “light, air and sunshine—some standard to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be neighborly downtown.’”

Bagshaw can’t prevent the construction of buildings that are already permitted or under construction, so what’s the point of such a meeting? And is chatting with a few constituents a productive way for a City Council member to spend half an hour? Bagshaw admits she’s not sure.

“At City Hall, there’s an opportunity to connect with as many as 20 people in an afternoon, with either phone calls or emails,” she says, compared to office hours, when she can only meet a handful of people. “But at the same time, one-on-one contact with constituents is what people really want from district elections,” she says.

With few exceptions though, the people who are served by office hours—neighborhood constituents—seemed pleased with the one-on-one access to their representatives. After telling Bagshaw about his downtown development concerns, for example, Bagshaw’s visitor chatted at length with her about the amenities in his building and common acquaintances, before thanking her profusely on his way out the door. (Giving greater access to city hall to a broader swath of Seattleites, including renters, immigrants and people of color, also appears to be behind Mayor Ed Murray’s recent decision to sever ties—and funding—to the 13 Neighborhood District Councils.)

Street-level constituent service has never been the job of Seattle City Council members, nor, practically speaking, can it be: If council members start responding personally to every constituent who shows up at their door, they’ll have little time left for other council business. And while those with the loudest voices and most time already have disproportional influence, it’s easy to see how treating office hours like a monthly poll of constituents could make this worse.

On the other hand, in a neighborhood-oriented city, it’s refreshing to see council members leaving their offices at Fifth and James and fanning out to rented district offices (Rob Johnson, District 4), community-college meeting rooms (Debora Juarez, District 5) and libraries (in addition to O’Brien, Bruce Harrell, District 2).

How comfortable council members are with a free-for-all open-house setting seems to vary. Juarez, Johnson and Bagshaw have appointment-only office hours. Others, like council freshman Lisa Herbold, District 1, seem like they’re coming home. Herbold, the longtime aide to former council member Nick Licata and a longtime resident of Highland Park, held office hours last spring in a room strewn with children’s books and toys at the South Park Community Center. Over the course of three hours, she argued with Seattle Firefighters Union president Kenny Stuart about the department’s gender pay gap, offered suggestions to a woman who was concerned over the air-quality impact of a marijuana grow operation in her neighborhood, and tried to help a constituent understand why her monthly electric bill was more than $500.

She also spoke to a young South Park resident who was worried about gun violence. The boy, who was about 13, came in with his dad, who prompted him gently to describe what it was like living in a neighborhood where gunshots are routine. “It’s kind of scary being a kid living in this neighborhood,” he said. “When we hear a gunshot, we usually just lock the doors and stay away from the windows.”

Herbold rattled off a list of things the city is doing to make neighborhoods safer, but told the young man that sometimes, “it’s about the squeaky wheel, and you guys coming down here is a squeaky wheel.”

Herbold said the problem was complicated, and that the solutions would have to be complex as well. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you I can fix this for you, but I can tell you we’ll all be more effective if we can speak with one voice for the neighborhood.”

Was the time spent with these constituents effective?

The following week, encouraged by Herbold, the boy and his father showed up at a neighborhood crime prevention council meeting, and Herbold wrote a letter to Seattle police chief Kathleen O’Toole asking her to “please place greater emphasis on consideration of the needs of South Park” in allocating police resources. O’Toole responded with a lengthy letter detailing the department’s ongoing efforts in the neighborhood, including ramped-up youth job programs, and neighborhood watch programs during the summer months. She concluded: “I commend [Herbold’s young visitor] for standing up and sharing his concerns.”

It’s hard to know, of course, whether this brief visit will lead to policy change. But it is safe to say that without the chance to sit down with a real live council member, one young man’s concerns would probably never have landed on the chief’s desk.

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