Democracy, Olympia Style

Inspired by the John Oliver’s segment on Gerrymandering…

I got to thinking some more about changes I’d like to see here in Olympia.

I first broached this topic in my grandiosely titled piece, A New Way Forward for Olympia, where I got a bit too far into the weeds. I want to fix that by going back up to the 10,000-foot level and providing a simpler layout of my plan.

What I’m talking about is a city charter. To get there we have to either convince our sitting council to put it on the ballot or gather the requisite signatures from voters via citizen initiative. After the charter vote, we have to have a freeholder election. 15 freeholders would need to be elected at-large who would then write the new charter for the city.

“But what do you want to DO, Rob?!”

Glad you asked. There are four things I want the charter to address and will urge freeholders to adopt:

  1. Districts
  2. Elected Executive
  3. Oversight Committees
  4. A Path Straight to the Ballot for Citizen Initiatives

First, let’s establish some grounds for discussion: 1. None of these things can happen overnight and will require phases; in some cases spanning years. 2. There are a lot of details and legalities to be sorted out and let’s not argue over specifics, but instead, find common ground and consensus on a set of goals like the ones I’m proposing here. 3. All of this is very possible, and I’m not proposing anything that has not been done before.

Ok, let’s get into it.

Districts – Quite simply put, our history of electing councilmembers has skewed dramatically toward the SE quadrant of our city. In juxtaposition, the SW quadrant, which contains the highest poverty rates in the entire county, have not been represented at least as long as I’ve been paying attention. We need better direct representation of ALL our neighborhoods.

I propose we split the city into 5 segments based on Emmett O’Connell’s map.

We would need to ensure that our districts can’t be gerrymandered so some kind of check would need to be baked into the charter that prevented a simple vote of the council from drawing new lines. An update to the map would need to require public approval of some sort.

Elected Executive – Right now the way our city operates, one person controls the entire city and its operations. The City Manager is not elected by the people but hired by the city council, which sets goals and priorities and passes ordinances and resolutions. The City Manager is not beholden to the Open Meetings Act and is free to “advocate” for issues behind closed doors without any public disclosure. Changing to a Strong Mayor System would remedy this and bring some sunlight into City Hall.

Oversight Committees – In my previous piece on this topic I laid out the “advisory boards and committees” that I would want in place and the structure I’d like them to take. I want to update that by changing the thrust from “advisory” to “oversight”. This isn’t just a semantic change, I would give each committee actual oversight powers. If you have a grievance, you can take it to the committee and they’ll review it. The process for that is something we can build out later but I think it’s very important that people know where to take their issue. Council, as we know it today, doesn’t have the time or capacity to take on this role which means a lot of people feel unheard.

A Path Straight to the Ballot for Citizen Initiatives – This one is pretty simple. If the people get together and gather signatures to put something on the ballot, then it goes on the ballot. Last year we saw council attempt to block an initiative that met all the requirements to go on the ballot. They argued against the merits of the initiative, and whether it would hold up in court. Well, I don’t think that’s appropriate and I think it’s undemocratic. Right now the initiative process is the only direct way the people of Olympia can influence city government. So, if the people meet the requirements of the initiative process then it shouldn’t pass through council first, it should just go on the ballot. Then we vote and if the initiative passes it’s City Hall’s job to bring it into compliance and put it back up for a vote.

I’ll reiterate that there are a lot of details to be sorted, but if freeholders can agree on these four goals then I think we’ll make some great headway and steer the ship of local government towards participation, transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness.

If you actually read this far, THANK YOU. Share it with someone you think would appreciate it!

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