A week in Councilmember Clark’s office

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Guest Post by Hallie Huffaker

Coming in as a weeklong intern randomly in December with no experience in government work, I was not expecting much from my time in Councilmember Clark’s office. However, I was blown away with the amount I have been able to see, learn and help out with despite my lack of experience and young age. Sally Clark and her three legislative assistants went above and beyond to give me an insider’s perspective on the city council.

As I walked up City Hall’s picturesque stone staircase, I was struck by the majestic building’s beauty. Only a few minutes after meeting LaTonya Brown, one of the LAs, I was shown around a floor full of friendly faces. I was amazed by how each person, from LAs to analysts, took the time to step away from their work and introduce themselves to me. I even chatted with Council President Tim Burgess!

Within an hour of my arrival, I was able, without any prior experience or knowledge, to attend the council briefing on the tunnel project, a hot-button issue. During the briefing I was party to the most updated reports on settlement observation in the Pioneer Square area, as well as information about Bertha and the tunnel project. I sat in the audience amongst members of the State Department of Transportation and got to exit through the special council staff doors (using my “Legislative Department” pass). The access that I was allowed was incredible.Councilmember Sally Clark and Hallie Huffaker.

I quickly realized that I would not be just sitting around while I was here. Right away I was shown to my own desk, complete with a stack of mail to file and access to Sally’s emails. Jesse Gilliam, another of the LAs, gave me research tasks to work on while I was not attending meetings and doing office work.

Since Sally was traveling during my first day, I met her on Tuesday. Sally was far from intimidating; she immediately she made me feel at home, allowing me to tag along to most of her meetings, both small office ones and large committee briefings, including one with the Mayor and the Speaker of the House! During meetings, Sally always made sure to introduce me to everyone at the table, making me feel like a part of her team.

My first project was categorizing the emails that Sally had received from constituents about the tunnel and compiling them into a report. Since the LAs were so approachable, I never felt nervous to ask questions. Because of their guidance, two days into my time I was able to make a substantive contribution to the team!

By my third day it almost felt natural to walk up the steps of City Hall. It was a slower meeting day than Tuesday, so I focused on desk work. I opened the stack of mail that comes at least twice a day for the councilmembers, before sorting the mail in order of importance for Sally. This helped me glimpse the kind of events and requests (and holiday cards!) councilmembers receive.

Next, I was given the phone tutorial, which is more complicated than it sounds. Even during a slower week like this one, constituents call daily with concerns, problems and requests for the LAs and Sally to deal with. Only a few minutes in, the phone rang with someone calling about a housing problem. After a quick moment of panic, my confidence grew as I asked questions and took down the constituent’s information, slowly getting the hang of things.

Although there is not an easy fix to everything, the LAs know who to contact and where to look for answers. They told me where to direct the complaint, and it was gratifying to feel like I had done something tangible to help someone in need. The council members do their jobs to help better the lives of Seattleites, and being in the office I was able to see how much effort it takes to make that happen.

Bright and early Thursday morning was a meeting of the Committee on Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency that Sally chairs. The public meeting took place in the council chambers. I arrived early with Jesse to help set up and make sure that everything would run smoothly. We opened the doors to the public, manned the comment sign-up sheets and checked microphones. Jesse used his free time to give me the inside scoop on how committee meetings work. So much more goes into these meetings than meets the eye!

Sally introduced and thanked me in her opening statement to the roomful of community members. It was little things like this that Sally continuously did during my week in her office that really made the experience special. The first 20 minutes of the meeting were reserved for public comment, when constituents can come up and have two minutes to voice their concerns to the council. Sally listened to each one carefully, asking some for follow-up information and calling those she knew well by name with friendly smiles and jokes. Despite the formal trappings of the event, the room had a warm, community-like feel.

This week in Sally Clark’s office was so much more than I expected. It was invaluable to have exposure into the daily lives of the councilmembers and their staff. I was amazed at how the work never ends; there is always more work to do, more people to meet with, more constituent concerns to respond to, but everyone meets the challenge head on. They were welcoming and dedicated to giving me the best education possible during my brief time here. The atmosphere on the second floor of City Hall was friendly and cheerful, despite the huge responsibility that its inhabitants carry daily. This week passed much too quickly…is it really over already?

Hallie is a graduate of Garfield High School and a sophomore at Dartmouth College. She’ll study in Italy next quarter and look for an internship in Washington DC next year. Thanks, Hallie!