Weary watchdogs

The Civic Foundation is plagued by debts and poor election prospects.

NEIGHBORHOODS STILL pack a punch in Seattle politics, but the Civic Foundation—their local political action committee— doesn't seem ready to swat a fly this year.

This odd paradox is visible against the backdrop of an exciting election year in the Emerald City: The mayor's race is turning into a bare-knuckled free-for-all pitting vulnerable incumbent Paul Schell against strong challengers, four City Council members are running for re-election, and the city attorney's post may be wide-open as incumbent Mark Sidran tries to become our next mayor. As the most visible manifestation of neighborhoods' political power, the Civic Foundation's members should be lacing up their gloves, ready to defend their interests against the downtown elite. Why aren't they? It may just be because mainstream politicians have taken the neighborhoods' cause to heart.

When the Civic Foundation was founded in 1996, it was touted to the media as a sort of populist piggy bank. Neighborhood activists around the city were annoyed by "corporate welfare" for giant downtown projects, most notably Safeco Field and the Pacific Place parking garage, which they felt had taken away from addressing the real need for basic services in Ballard, Judkins Park, West Seattle, and elsewhere. In order to fight the political and financial power of the city's fat cats, the foundation's "little guys" each paid $9 a month into a PAC. Members' dues were supposed to accumulate and then be spent on direct mail in support of neighborhood-friendly candidates in the every-other-year city elections.

The concept worked at first. The group began 1997 with almost $5,000 in its coffers and had a banner year in 1999 when it spent $60,466 on direct mail in support of City Council candidates Charlie Chong and Dawn Mason. Despite the foundation's free-spending ways, Mason and Chong lost badly. The foundation entered 2000 with a deficit of $5,688, and this year remains more than $4,000 in the red.

No problem, says Brian Livingston, the group's founder and former executive director. "We're a public interest political action committee that does most of its real work when there's about to be an election," he says. "Most of the money that comes in for the foundation comes in from one to two months before the general election."

Looking at the foundation's financial history, Livingston's statement has some truth to it. But there's more going on than that. One missing part of the equation is Livingston himself, who volunteered much time and money over the group's first four years. Although still a member of the board of directors, Livingston has recently devoted most of his time to making a living (he writes books and columns on computer-related topics).

Another problem for the foundation is structural. Its bylaws prohibit it from spending more than 15 percent of its revenues on management, so there's simply no way to replace all of Livingston's lost volunteer hours (for example, the foundation's 2000 cash intake of $19,585 justifies the spending of less than $3,000 on management expenses).

And some activists say smart mainstream politicians have merely co-opted the neighborhoods' issues. "At the very least, we get a lot more lip service than we used to," says Matthew Fox, University District Community Council president.

In his first three years in office, Mayor Schell has used the ballot box to fund basic city infrastructure at a level the city has never seen before: 1998's $196.4 million levy for libraries, 1999's $72 million levy for community centers and Seattle Center, and 2000's $198.2 million levy for parks. In each case, Schell cleverly combined a host of small neighborhood projects with a large institutional one. In addition, Schell has tripled a fund for neighborhood projects and organized the city into six sectors to better track delivery of services.

Compared with his predecessor, Norm Rice, Schell has paid more attention to the neighborhoods, Fox acknowledges. "Part of it is Paul responding to pretty clear public pressure over the course of several campaigns," he says.

As for the 2001 elections, the Civic Foundation has one clear mission: to help re-elect City Council member Nick Licata, a founding board member. "One thing any organization has to do is re-elect their people," says foundation board member Daniel Norton.

And even if the only neighborhood contribution to this election consists of Schell's boasting about what he's done for the neighborhoods (and rival Greg Nickels' claiming he can do more), the group shows signs of engaging in a little issue-shopping. Livingston's think tank, the Washington Forum, is embarking on a study of district elections for City Council, an issue many see as the neighborhood cause of the future. "I think the members of the Civic Foundation would be very interested in taking a position on neighborhood districts," he says.


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