NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, September 13th, 2023

Teresa Mosqueda proposes amending Seattle’s charter to stagger council terms and prepare city for switch to even-year elections

In a few months, Seat­tle City Coun­cilmem­ber Tere­sa Mosque­da is like­ly to be bid­ding the Emer­ald City’s nine-mem­ber leg­isla­tive body adieu when she makes the jump to the King Coun­ty Coun­cil, assum­ing she once again pre­vails over rival Sofia Aragon in the 8th Dis­trict Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion runoff.

Before she leaves, Mosque­da is putting on the table a thought­ful pro­pos­al to adjust the elec­tion tim­ing for Seat­tle’s eleven exec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive posi­tions. The pro­pos­al takes the form of a char­ter amend­ment that would be sub­mit­ted to vot­ers next Novem­ber (mean­ing, 2024, not this November).

The amend­ment would do two things:

  • Stag­ger the terms of Seat­tle’s nine coun­cil posi­tions so that rough­ly half are up in one cycle and half are up in the oth­er cycle. Right now, the two at-large coun­cil posi­tions are elect­ed in one cycle (2021, 2025, etc.) and the sev­en dis­trict-based posi­tions are elect­ed in the oth­er cycle (2023, 2027, etc.)
  • Pre­pare Seat­tle for the pas­sage of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s leg­is­la­tion to allow cities to tran­si­tion to even year elec­tions if they wish. NPI’s SB 5723, prime spon­sored by Sen­a­tor Javier Valdez (D‑46th Dis­trict: Seat­tle) is cur­rent­ly parked in the Sen­ate Rules Committee.

The Finance and Hous­ing Com­mit­tee is due to receive a brief­ing on Mosqueda’s amend­ment tomor­row, Sep­tem­ber 14th, 2023.

If approved by vot­ers, the amend­ment would “reduce the terms of four Coun­cil seats (Dis­tricts 2, 4, and 6, and City­wide seat 9) to two years for one term only,” a staff analy­sis pre­pared by ana­lyst Lish Whit­son explains. “The effect of the change would be to have all even Coun­cil seats on the bal­lot in 2029 and 2033, and all odd Coun­cil seats on the bal­lot in 2027, 2031 and 2035.”

Posi­tions #2, #4, #6, and #8 would thus be elect­ed at the same time as the May­or and City Attor­ney, while Posi­tions #1, #3, #5, #7, and #9 would be elect­ed two years before / two years after every may­oral elec­tion cycle.

To the vot­er, bal­lots would look like this:

Cycle A

  1. May­or
  2. City Attor­ney
  3. City Coun­cil — At-Large Posi­tion #8
  4. City Coun­cil — Dis­trict (vot­ers in Dis­tricts #2, #4, and #6)

Cycle B

  1. City Coun­cil — At-Large Posi­tion #9
  2. City Coun­cil — Dis­trict (vot­ers in Dis­tricts #1, #3, #5 and #7)

Addi­tion­al­ly, lan­guage would be added to the Char­ter enabling the Seat­tle City Coun­cil to adopt an ordi­nance tran­si­tion­ing the city to even-year elections.

Whit­son explains:

The char­ter amend­ment placed on the bal­lot under the pro­posed Res­o­lu­tion would also autho­rize the Coun­cil to amend Coun­cil terms by Ordi­nance if the State autho­rizes or requires the City to have its elec­tions in even years. Even year elec­tions, because of the pres­ence of fed­er­al races on the bal­lot, gen­er­al­ly have much high­er turnouts than odd-year elec­tions. For exam­ple, in 2022, 70.3 per­cent of Seattle’s reg­is­tered vot­ers vot­ed, com­pared to 55.3 per­cent vot­ing in 2021.

This spring, the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture con­sid­ered leg­is­la­tion to autho­rize even-year elec­tions and may take up the issue again in the future. Rather than requir­ing a sep­a­rate Char­ter amend­ment to make such a change, the pro­posed Char­ter amend­ment that would be placed on that bal­lot would also allow the Coun­cil, by Ordi­nance, to adjust terms so that all elec­tions take place in even years. This sec­tion would apply to the terms of the City Attor­ney and the May­or as well as Councilmembers.

Empha­sis is mine. The sec­ond para­graph above is refer­ring to our Sen­ate Bill 5723, which had a suc­cess­ful pub­lic hear­ing in Feb­ru­ary and received a “do pass” rec­om­men­da­tion in the Sen­ate State Gov­ern­ment Com­mit­tee.

Our team devel­oped SB 5723 to give cities flex­i­bil­i­ty. A city that wish­es to change its elec­tion tim­ing may do so either by refer­ring a res­o­lu­tion to the peo­ple or coun­cil­man­i­cal­ly, as long as doing so would not con­flict with the city’s char­ter. Most cities in Wash­ing­ton are what are known as “code cities” and do not have char­ters. A few cities, like Seat­tle, Spokane, and Taco­ma, are known as “first class” cities and have home-rule char­ters, which are like munic­i­pal constitutions.

In a recent guest essay for The Urban­ist, I explained how Seat­tle could change its char­ter to take advan­tage of SB 5723’s poten­tial pas­sage in the next leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Coun­cilmem­ber Mosqueda’s amend­ment would — in addi­tion to pro­vid­ing for stag­gered terms — amend Arti­cle XIX, Sec­tion 3 along the lines of what I had con­tem­plat­ed to enable a future switchover to even years to be approved by a vote of the Coun­cil. Here’s the mod­i­fied Sec­tion 3 language:

Sec. 3 TERMS OF ELECTIVE OFFICERS. The terms of the May­or, the City Attor­ney, and of Coun­cilmem­bers shall be four years, except when this Char­ter pro­vides oth­er­wise, or when an ordi­nance cre­ates short­er or longer terms to accom­mo­date mov­ing munic­i­pal elec­tions to even-num­bered years.

The pro­posed bal­lot title for the char­ter amend­ment is as follows:

City of Seat­tle pro­posed Char­ter Amend­ment No. 30 con­cerns terms of Councilmembers.

This mea­sure would cre­ate two-year terms for Coun­cilmem­ber posi­tion 9 (2025–2027) and posi­tions 2, 4, and 6 (2027–2029) so that sub­se­quent elec­tion cycles would elect even-num­bered Coun­cilmem­bers in 2029 and odd-num­bered Coun­cilmem­bers in 2031. The Char­ter would also be amend­ed to allow sim­i­lar flex­i­bil­i­ty by ordi­nance to accom­mo­date mov­ing munic­i­pal elec­tions to even num­bered years if per­mit­ted by state law.

Should this mea­sure be enact­ed into law?

Yes [ ]
No [ ]

Should SB 5723 and this char­ter amend­ment pass next year, Seat­tle would be able to start switch­ing to even-year elec­tions as soon as 2025, so long as the Coun­cil approved an ordi­nance autho­riz­ing a tran­si­tion by Jan­u­ary 15th, 2025.

The term stag­ger­ing por­tion of the amend­ment seems to assume that a tran­si­tion to even-year elec­tions would not hap­pen until the 2030s, after a tran­si­tion to stag­gered terms has occurred. In the event SB 5723 gets passed, how­ev­er, we think it would make more sense to accom­plish these tran­si­tions con­cur­rent­ly, so the city could take advan­tage of the ben­e­fits of even-year elec­tions more quickly.

Seat­tle could elect sev­en of its posi­tions, includ­ing the two exec­u­tive ones, to three-year bridge terms and the remain­ing coun­cil posi­tions to one-year bridge terms.

The tran­si­tion would look like this:

  • 2025 > 2028 (three year bridge terms) 
    • May­or
    • City Attor­ney
    • Coun­cil At-Large Posi­tion #8
  • 2025 > 2026 (one year bridge term) 
    • City Coun­cil At-Large Posi­tion #9
  • 2027 > 2028 (one year bridge terms) 
    • City Coun­cil Dis­trict #2
    • City Coun­cil Dis­trict #4
    • City Coun­cil Dis­trict #6
  • 2027 > 2030 (three year bridge terms) 
    • City Coun­cil Dis­trict #1
    • City Coun­cil Dis­trict #3
    • City Coun­cil Dis­trict #5
    • City Coun­cil Dis­trict #7

Posi­tion #9 would, under this scheme, be the first posi­tion to be elect­ed by Seat­tle vot­ers for a four-year term in a midterm cycle (2026).

Below is the memo and a copy of the pro­posed char­ter amend­ment ref­er­enced above, in case you’d like to read the mate­ri­als yourself.

Memo and char­ter amend­ment on elec­tion tim­ing in Seattle

NPI thanks Coun­cilmem­ber Mosque­da for offer­ing this amend­ment. With a few adjust­ments, this could set Seat­tle up per­fect­ly to take advan­tage of the leg­is­la­tion we have pro­posed to let cities choose their own elec­tion timing.

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