Seven Pieces of Priceless Advice
By Jean Godden
If there's one thing that retired city councilmembers are good for it's free advice. When candidates line up to run, they often ask former CMs for guidance. (They'd also like an endorsement and contribution thank you).
But once elected, new officeholders seldom seek advice, free or otherwise. More's the pity. There are lessons that can be shared: what I wish I'd done and what I wish someone had told me. Here then are random bits of wisdom for the three new councilmembers who will join the council in January. (District 4's Alex Pedersen has already taken his seat since he's replacing an elected councilman who quit last April.) Some priceless advice:
Choose strong-minded staffers. One of the great joys of serving Seattle is having aides -- up to four now? -- to staff your office. While it's nice to have aides who root for you, it's more important to pick officemates who will tell you when you're making a mistake. I was fortunate to have hard-working aides who at times weren't afraid to say "don't do that." My former aides have all gone on to important jobs; they make me proud.
Rely on Central Staff. Seattle councilmembers have a central staff of more than a dozen expert analysts who do research. They can help you implement your ideas while keeping you from expensive mistakes. Before leaving office, I pushed for something the city badly needed: paid time-off for employees with new offspring. (How many paid weeks? Available to both moms and dads? What would it cost?) Paid parental leave, launched in 2015, happened thanks to analysis and help from central staffer Christa Valles and my aide Monica Ghosh.
Lower your expectations. You'll learn that everything takes longer than you think. As a brand new councilmember, you probably campaigned to end regressive taxation and homelessness. Those are worthy goals, but it will take time to realize them. When I joined the council in 2004, I was planning -- don't laugh -- to take down the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Today I'm cheering what we (two former mayors, fellow councilmembers, a governor, state legislators and I) did to free the waterfront, but it is a full 15 years later.
Get out of City Hall. Committee meetings and public hearings will keep you super busy. Still it's critical to sometimes leave an atmosphere where you may be hearing only from the angriest and most vocal, as well as from the backslappers seeking a "favor." Take one day a week to walk your district's streets, eat lunch at a neighborhood cafe and talk to residents. It's not only healthy for you and the city, it should be required.
Answer those emails. Yes, I know some are flame mail. But you should reply -- no form letters, please. It also helps to remember what your mother taught you about writing "thank you" notes. I handwrote dozens during my years in office and was surprised that people were impressed to receive them even times when I wasn't able to convey positive news.
Think twice about utopian ideas. Of course it's tempting to conjure novel ways to make the city better. Just watch out for unintended consequences. There's the time Councilmember Mike O'Brien wanted to save the city having to dispose of bulky yellow page phone books. When the city was sued over prior restraint on printing (a constitutional violation), it ended up badly, costing Seattle taxpayers more than $1 million.
Listen to your constituents. The people in your district elected you to represent them and they deserve your attention. Just ask District 1's Lisa Herbold; she can give lessons. Take that September weekend last year when Bernard the cat got stuck in a tangle of live wires atop a 40-foot Seattle City Light pole. No one seemed able to help. Then one constituent e-mailed Herbold's office and 16 minutes later, a City Light bucket truck rescued Bernard. Contrast that with District 4's Rob Johnson who gave SDOT the go ahead for bike lanes on 35th NE despite knowing 68 percent were opposed. The backlash may explain why Johnson didn't stick around to complete his term.
Seattle councilmembers face difficult problems they're expected to resolve. Serving is a demanding and sometimes frustrating job. But we who are standing on the sidelines wish you the best. We hope you'll take the free advice, even if you think "free" advice is worth exactly what you paid for it.