Wednesday, July 28, 2021
July 28, 2021

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Advisory group pushes voting districts, salary caps for Vancouver city council

Councilors tepid to both proposals

By , Columbian staff writer

Vancouver’s city councilors are lukewarm toward proposed changes to the city’s charter, including new restrictions on how said councilors might be elected and paid.

At the city council meeting Monday evening, the Charter Review Committee, an advisory group that reviews the city’s governing document every five years, laid out a roster of eight recommended changes to the charter in a prioritized list. The biggest revisions would establish voting districts for city council elections and set a cap on annual raises for city councilor salaries.

Both proposals were met with resistance from the city council.

“I am apprehensive about the totality of these measures,” said Councilor Ty Stober.

The city council can do what it wants with each city charter recommendation — they can put a recommendation on the ballot for a binding vote, or put it on a ballot for an advisory vote. They can postpone the process, delaying the item until a future election so they have time to tinker with the proposal and gather more feedback. Or the council can do nothing, and let the recommendation die.

Any change to the city charter ultimately requires voter approval on a general election ballot.

Priority No. 1: Districts

The charter committee’s top recommendation involves dividing Vancouver into three separate electoral districts, each of which would vote on its own city council candidates during the primary.

The general election would still be held at-large, as would the mayor’s election.

Under the charter committee’s recommendation, each of the three districts would be represented by two city councilors. The charter committee hoped to drum up more representation on the city council from people who live in underrepresented areas, as well as encourage more racial and economic diversity among candidates.

“We had a lot of discussion about this. The feeling was the time had come to join all the other charter cities in Washington,” Esther Schrader, a member of the committee, told the council.

“Districting will promote demographic and economic diversity on the city council,” Schrader continued. “The current council is pretty much lumped together geographically…there’s still a lot of west side representation, compared to east side or north-center.”

The 15-member charter committee was unanimous in the need for electoral districts, and there was even some debate among the committee members as to whether six districts might encourage more equitable representation than three. But the city’s current city councilors were less enthusiastic over either prospect.

“I don’t think our city is big enough to chop it up,” said Councilor Bill Turlay.

Councilor Linda Glover wondered aloud whether dividing the city into districts might discourage qualified people from seeking office, especially if multiple prospective candidates live in the same area.

“Could this in fact be a bit limiting?” she asked. “If they happen to live in the same district, we’ve lost that resource.”

At Monday’s workshop, the council leaned toward shelving the proposal to give city staff the chance to gather more information.

In an informal vote, only Laurie Lebowsky and Erik Paulsen — the council’s newest members — expressed a willingness to put the proposed change to the city charter on the November ballot in either a binding or an advisory vote.

Paulsen criticized his colleagues for “shirking our responsibility” as elected officials. Postponing the ballot measure in the name of gathering more community feedback, he said, was just kicking the can down the road.

“The nature of putting something on the ballot is inherently getting community feedback,” Paulsen said.

Priority No. 2: Salary caps

The Charter Review Committee’s second-most pressing recommendation hearkened back to an incident in 2016. That was when the city’s salary review commission pushed a controversial proposal to give the mayor a 117 percent pay hike, launching a public protest and a 3,000-signature opposition petition.

Ultimately the city council shot down the proposal and the salary commission backtracked, recommending a modest incremental raise. But city leaders were struck with just how close three people on an unelected commission came to hijacking the process — and, by trying to expand the mayor’s salary and scope so dramatically, nearly undermining the entire city government structure through backdoor methods.

So in Monday’s presentation to the city council, Schrader said the Charter Review Committee had decided to write in a few safeguards.

Under the committee’s recommendation, the salary review commission would increase from five members to seven members. Annual raises for the mayor and city council would be tied to the Consumer Price Index and capped at 4 percent. Any higher salary bumps would need to be approved by public vote.

“We like to keep local control over the situation, but we’d like to keep a cap,” Schrader said. “This would limit the ability of the commission to make big changes.”

Turlay, Paulsen and Lebowsky expressed support for the proposal.

“We’re not here to make money, we’re here to serve city interests,” Turlay said.

But Stober, Glover and Mayor Pro Tem Bart Hansen pushed back, saying that modest and inflexible council salaries might impose yet another barrier for low-income people seeking a spot on the city council.

It’s a lot harder to run for city council, Stober pointed out, if you’re worried about paying your bills. A council salary cap wouldn’t help that.

“I am concerned the current council salaries will continue to inhibit us from having a more diverse dias,” Stober said. “I can do this because my family income is significant enough that it provides me the flexibility to do this. But if you’re coming from an economically disadvantaged situation?”

In another informal vote, councilors were split on how to proceed, with some in support of placing the charter revision on the November ballot, some who wanted more information and others who wanted to kill the proposal.

The wide range of opinions solicited a joke from Turlay: “We do have diversity on the council!” he cracked.

The smaller stuff

The Charter Review Committee put forth six other recommendations, though in an already jam-packed council workshop they didn’t see much discussion.

One change to the charter would clarify language surrounding councilmember qualifications. Currently, a council candidate needs to have lived in Vancouver for at least two years before they can be elected to the city council, but no such stipulation exists for appointments. The proposed change to the city charter would require two years of residency for anyone on the council, elected or appointed,

Another change would formalize the process for filling council vacancies, issuing a public notice and holding public interviews of applicants.

The fifth recommendation would allow the city staff to approve payroll, bills and invoices as long as they receive retroactive approval from the city council within a month of payment. The sixth would let the city enter into contracts longer than five years, clearing up an existing gray area.

The seventh change would allow the city to publish only a subsection of an ordinance when seeking an amendment — the current rule, requiring the reprint of the entire ordinance for any minor changes, is a waste of time and paper, said assistant city attorney Brent Boger.

The eighth and final proposal would tweak a few inconsistencies and remove some outdated language from the charter. The term “police judge,” for instance, refers to a job that doesn’t exist anymore.