I met with City Council candidate David Miller at Herkimer Coffee last week for an hour-long discussion of his priorities and vision for Seattle. Miller is running for Position 8 (although council members serve at-large, and not specific neighborhoods).
Miller is the founder and CEO of Biotech Stock Research. A long-time activist in his Maple Leaf neighborhood (and former president of the Maple Leaf Community Council), Miller was appointed by the council to the Parks and Green Spaces Citizen’s Advisory Committee, which created the successful 2008 Parks for All levy.
In his “spare” time, Miller and his business partner also volunteer at the UW-Bothell Center for Student Entrepreneurship, where they help students launch their companies. “It’s so energizing,” Miller says of the entrepreneurial program. “The energy from the students is so fabulous. It helps keep me energized about my own business.”
He believes neighborhood issues are the city’s issues, and wants to strengthen neighborhood voices. But, since council members are elected at-large, and do not represent a certain area of the city, I asked Miller how he would keep on top of issues pertaining to Seattle’s more than 100 neighborhoods.
“You pay attention to the neighborhood blogs and you do exactly what I’m doing now,” he said while sitting at Herkimer. “I want to spend a lot of time in the neighborhoods. It’s simply listening and then doing.”
While every neighborhood is different, at their cores, they care about the exact same things. “All neighborhoods have the same issues,” he says. “It’s crime, land use and schools. Some neighborhoods rank them differently, but they’re all the same issues.”
And each neighborhood’s approach to crime and land use is different. “I love the fact that we’re a city of neighborhoods. It’s our key strength.”
But, Miller takes issue with the city’s current perceived attitude of promoting the city to neighborhoods, rather than promoting neighborhoods to the city. He thinks the city’s administration has been much too top down and heavy handed. He says the city needs to figure out “how to make activists out of everyone.”
For example, he doesn’t like the city’s rules of limiting public comments to two minutes for each person after a council hearing. He says that limits citizen participation, because it’s just commenting, not participating.
“We want to make it okay to be a community organizer in this city, and not be seen as a NIMBY every time you sit up and say ‘that’s not right.'” He says he knows too many people who no longer want to be community activists because they’ve been slapped down too many times in the past.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle. There’s a lot of mistrust out there now, and we have to make sure we do a better job of listening,” Miller says.
He says the city’s Department of Neighborhoods is a wonderful conduit for citizen participation, and that it’s done a great job on the Neighborhood Planning Process during the last decade. “Of all the departments in the city, the DON is not one that needs a ton of change because they’re doing a good job,” he says.
But, he’d like to see the DON take an even greater role in facilitating citizens’ interactions with other city departments when they’re not getting results from those other departments. For example, he’d like to see a traffic expert on the DON staff, to help neighborhoods concerned about traffic calming measures work with the Department of Transportation.
He also believes civil rights should be an important part of the DON, especially translation services, and that it should perhaps act in a sort of ombudsmen role.
Miller says the one city department that needs the most overhaul is the Department of Planning and Development. “DPD needs to have the balance restored between who they get their money from, which is the developers, and serving the needs of the people of Seattle,” Miller says.
Now, he says that doesn’t mean we should necessarily make it harder for developers, but when neighborhoods raise concerns about the environment, then DPD needs to do a better job finding the balance between the two. And while development needs to happen in the city to address housing density issues without creating urban sprawl, “Their job is to protect the people who already live here.”
He says the city council has already put lots of environmental laws on the books, but that DPD is not enforcing them. Miller says he’s talked to a number of developers and they’re not against those rules, but they are against uncertainty. They want to know up front what the city will require, so they can build that into their cost estimates. But if they don’t know what the city will require of them, they may build in inflated estimated costs to cover what MIGHT happen.
He also wants the city’s seven volunteer Design Review Boards to assert their power. “A Design Review Board can tell a developer to go away” or require extensive modifications, he says. “Design Review Boards don’t realize how much power they have.”
He says the city can help by being more certain about where density is going to happen, set their zoning after thinking carefully, then stick to it. “Density and growth is hard, but we’re obligated by the state to do it,” he says. “And even if we weren’t obligated by the state, density needs to happen in some places.”
Miller also answered several questions posed by PhinneyWood readers.
Susan Mullen asked: “I’d like Mr. Miller’s thoughts on law enforcement issues. Specifically, his thoughts on funding more police officers and his thoughts on community policing.”
Miller says he is a huge fan of former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, who once told a council meeting that the city needed an additional 250 officers. Miller says that at the time, Mayor Nickels said Steinbrueck was grandstanding, but the public backed up Steinbrueck’s position, and the city eventually decided to add 20-25 more officers each year, for a total of about 200 additional officers. Miller says it’s a great start, but that the number should be closer to Steinbrueck’s original proposal of 250.
Miller says the Big Three of neighborhood crimes are car prowls, graffiti and burglaries, and an emphasis on community policing combats all three. “Every single study tells us that,” he says emphatically. “We need to get back to that.”
Susan also asked about schools: “I’m also interested in what Mr. Miller thinks about the state of public schools in Seattle, and ideas he might have for ways the City Council can support our schools.”
Miller would like to see an Education Committee within the city council, which would also consider after-school programs and job programs. He’d like a city council member who is a direct liaison to the School Board, to help the two entities act more in unison. For example, both the city and the school district make land use decisions independently. Why is that a problem? “We’re trying to attract more people to Rainier Valley and the Central District, and the school district is closing schools,” he says.
He also thinks there’s a lack of cooperation between the school district and the Parks Department, especially regarding the use of sports fields.
Susan also asked about charities: “Also, does Mr. Miller have any thoughts on how to encourage people in Seattle to contribute to charitable organizations – including time, money, and in-kind gifts.”
Miller says the council can’t regulate people into contributing to charities, but it can set an example by talking about it.
GM wanted Miller’s position on urban growth: “I see David Miller supports ‘responsible’ urban growth. I’d like him to define what he means by ‘responsible,’ and I’d like him to cite an example of responsible urban growth and an example of irresponsible urban growth.”
“We have an urban village strategy in Seattle. Instead of allowing growth in every area, it’s going to happen here, here and here,” he says. “I think everybody agrees that urban sprawl is bad. The same thing is bad for intra-urban sprawl.” He says decreasing tree canopy and a less-than-comprehensive bus system make urban density difficult for many to swallow.
“Growth that happens within the urban village boundaries is responsible,” he says. “And growth that occurs outside that, especially with urban tree canopy, is irresponsible.”
Mr. B in Ballard asked about transit issues: “I’d like to specifically hear his thoughts on both the streetcar extension to Ballard (and his thoughts on the whole system) and his thoughts in how the tunnel viaduct compromise should play out with the city vs. state vs. federal funds.”
Miller does not support the streetcar line, because he says it’s too expensive to lay down tracks and maintain the cars. He says adding more buses is a lot cheaper, and he says that Phinney, Fremont and Ballard need better bus service. “Almost every corner of our city needs better transportation services, but I don’t believe street car service is the way to do it. I’d rather buy more bus hours from Metro.”
He says you could take a bus and paint it with special colors saying it’s the “Ballard/Phinney” line, and it would essentially be the same thing as a streetcar, but would be far cheaper.
He thinks better signage would help, too, especially for first time or reluctant bus users who don’t know all the ins and outs of public transportation.
As for the tunnel to replace the viaduct, Miller says the city must be very careful about where it places the north entrance to the tunnel. Just moving that entrance a few blocks can make a huge difference to north end neighborhoods such as ours. But, “I’m not sure we’re going to find the perfect place to serve both mobility and drivers,” he says.
Miller says he and his staff read PhinneyWood and other neighborhood blogs to find out what’s important to each neighborhood. “Let’s keep the conversation going,” he says.