Saturday, March 28, 2020
March 28, 2020

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Vancouver City Council shelves electoral districts

But voters might be asked to decide issue in 2020

By , Columbian staff writer

A proposal that would divide Vancouver into electoral districts is shelved but not dead. City councilors may move forward with a tentative plan to put the question before voters in the 2020 general election.

If so, where and how district lines might be drawn would hinge on the findings of an as-yet unnamed advisory group tasked with examining the racial and economic demographics of Vancouver.

“We want to move forward in a baby step here to continue this conversation about districting. We’re not ready for an election yet,” Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said Monday.

But even the tentative support for electoral districts is a shift from a few months ago, when the city council was unenthusiastic about the Charter Review Committee’s top priority: dividing Vancouver into three equally populous parts, each of which would be represented by two city councilors decided in primary elections. General elections, the committee proposed, would still be held at-large.

The charter committee reasoned that drawing districts might coax candidates that better represent the city’s historically underrepresented demographics into local races. The committee also figured that smaller districts could make it easier for candidates to coordinate a campaign, especially for those who don’t necessarily have the time or resources of their retired or wealthy opponents.

During a deliberation in May, review committee member Esther Schrader said electoral districts would “push forward qualified people from minorities and from disadvantaged neighborhoods that aren’t at present even considering running for council.”

The 15-member advisory group felt strongly about the proposal, highlighting it as a top priority in its list of eight recommended changes to the charter.

But during a presentation to the council in June, it became clear the city council felt differently. Some councilors expressed concerns about making such a comprehensive, structural change to the city’s elections. Others worried about provincialism — that having councilors represent specific districts might result in narrower policy priorities and backroom favor-trading.

Ultimately, only two of the council’s six members supported putting the issue before voters. But at Monday evening’s workshop, the council’s general consensus seemed to budge.

It’s too late for the 2019 general election. But the question could appear before voters on their Nov. 3, 2020 ballot.

“I want to follow the Charter Review Commission’s recommendation about putting it on the ballot to let the people decide,” Councilor Laurie Lebowsky said Monday. “We want to ensure that different perspectives are at the table.”

Lebowsky urged the council to wait until the results of the 2020 U.S. Census are released, to ensure the city is working with up-to-date data when deciding how to draw district lines. Other councilors expressed support for appointing a new committee of local stakeholders who would be tasked with collecting demographic data.

Councilor Bill Turlay, who is finishing out his term on the council and not running for re-election, disagreed with the need for districts. All the councilors should continue to be elected at-large, he said.

“This is a solution looking for a problem. I don’t see a problem, to be honest here,” Turlay said. “I like things the way they are. I don’t see the need to change it.”

Not a new idea

Making any revisions to the city’s charter is a deliberate, slow-turning wheel.

Vancouver’s Charter Review Committee conducts a comprehensive review of the city’s governing document every five years, looking for places to improve or update. The committee then makes recommendations to the city council on what they think should change, ranked by priority. From there, the city council can decide whether or not to put a recommended change to the charter before voters in a primary or general election.

Changes to the city’s charter can’t occur without voter approval.

This isn’t the first time electoral districts have been proposed in a charter review process, said Jan Bader, the city’s program and policy development manager.

In 1994, the idea was discussed and dropped. In 1999, the issue made it onto the ballot for an advisory vote, but failed to earn a mandate — 48.6 percent of residents voted for electoral districts, and the issue was dropped. The charter review in 2009 again raised the idea, but the city council didn’t pursue it.

On the current city council, everyone is white. That’s not an anomaly for Vancouver, which in its 162-year history has elected only one black city councilor.

Geographically speaking

Geographically, where members live also skews heavily in favor of the west side of the city — in the last 20 years, for example, there’s never been a city councilor from north central Vancouver. Of the sitting council, only Turlay lives east of Interstate 205.

Vancouver is also one of the only charter cities in Washington that still elects its full city council at-large in both its primary and general elections. Most comparable cities, including Bellingham, Spokane, Everett, Tacoma and Yakima, divide their population into electoral districts.

“My fellow council members said we’re solving a problem that doesn’t exist. I think if we went out to talk to our constituents, they wouldn’t agree,” Councilor Erik Paulsen said. “We’re talking about one potential solution.”