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Originally published September 26, 2012 at 8:30 PM | Page modified September 27, 2012 at 5:44 PM

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Push is on for Seattle City Council election by district

A new group has formed to push for electing Seattle City Council members by district, hoping to bring council members closer to citizens and neighborhood problems.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Proposed City Council districts

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A new group has formed to push for electing Seattle City Council members by district.

Currently, all nine council members are elected citywide, or at-large. Seattle Districts Now is proposing to elect seven members by geographic district and two members citywide.

The group, which is holding a news conference Thursday, has a map showing how it would carve Seattle into seven districts. West Seattle, for instance, would become one district; Southeast Seattle would be another. It was drawn by Richard Morrill, a demographer and University of Washington professor emeritus, and each district includes about 87,000 people.

The proposal would go to voters, potentially in 2013, if the group collects enough signatures to put it on the ballot.

Seattle Districts Now touts itself as a coalition of business and community leaders who feel district elections would make council members more responsive to neighborhood problems and issues.

"We're not mad at any council members," said Faye Garneau, co-chair of the group and longtime head of the Aurora Avenue Merchants Association. "This would bring government closer to people and people closer to government."

Coalition endorsers include state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Seattle Parks Commissioner John Barber, environmental lawyer Knoll Lowney and North Seattle Industrial Association President Eugene Wasserman.

"Seattle is one of the last cities its size that doesn't have district elections," said John Fox, co-chair of the group and leader of the Seattle Displacement Coalition.

Houston, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta and Denver are among the cities that have a hybrid system, according to Fox, combining districts and at-large seats like his group is proposing.

District elections would bring down the cost of a viable council campaign and lead to more grass-roots contact with voters and less reliance on mailers and TV ads, Fox said.

Council members now make nearly $120,000 year.

In the three most competitive City Council races in 2011, incumbents Sally Clark, Bruce Harrell and Jean Godden each raised at least $243,000 in contributions, and they averaged $263,000. Their opponents averaged just $77,000 in contributions, with the highest at $102,000.

Seattle has a long history of opposing district elections. Council districts were rejected by Seattle voters in 1975, 1995 and 2003.

Civic groups such as the Municipal League and League of Women Voters opposed districts in 2003, saying they would foster narrow parochial interests.

But this effort is different from the 2003 measure, which captured just 46 percent of the vote, in two important ways, Wasserman said.

The 2003 proposal did not include any at-large seats; and it did not draw up proposed districts, leaving voters unsure what their districts might look like.

The group must collect more than 30,000 valid signatures to put a measure on the 2013 ballot that would seek to change the city charter. Group members say they're not sure if they'll use paid signature gatherers. Wasserman said the group hopes to raise $250,000 for the campaign. If successful, the first district elections would occur in 2015.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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