The most-discussed issue at Monday’s Vancouver City Council meeting was also notably absent from the agenda: the question of whether or not to divide Vancouver into three electoral districts.
Identified as a top priority by the Charter Review Committee, it was the only recommendation out of eight not specifically up for public comment Monday evening. The city council decided not to move forward with the proposal fast enough to put the question before voters in November.
But the council’s decision reverberated when the prospect of the city’s districts — or lack thereof — came up again and again in a public forum.
Ed Hamilton, Southwest Washington director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, took the council to task for its reluctance to move forward with a proposal designed to encourage a wider cross section of the city’s residents to run for public office.
“You don’t need to wait to hear from disenfranchised groups before acting on their behalf,” Hamilton said.
“There is nothing to be afraid of in districting,” he continued. “A city reflective of the different parts of the city and its residents is a city that provides equal opportunity and engages with its voters by uplifting and reinforcing public participation.”
Under the Charter Review Committee’s recommendation, Vancouver would divide the city into three electoral districts. Each district would choose candidates living within its boundaries for the primary elections, while general elections would still be held citywide. The city council would include two councilors from each district.
The idea was to encourage more diversity. Currently, all but one councilor lives west of Interstate 205, and all but one councilor lives south of Highway 500. Districts, the committee reasoned, could encourage representation from underrepresented areas of the city. North-central Vancouver, for instance, hasn’t produced a city councilor in at least 20 years.
“I was disappointed with the way that some of the recommendations were received,” Susan Courtney, one of 15 people on the Charter Review Committee, told the council.
Courtney was one of several members of the committee who addressed the group Monday evening, expressing some frustration with how the group’s top priority had been shelved while other less consequential matters — like removing outdated language from the charter, or cutting down paper waste from the redundant printing of ordinances — sailed through.
Others took issue with the implication that the council needed more public feedback before putting the question before voters in November.
“The biggest concern I have about this process: Several times during last Monday’s workshop, I heard comments from some councilors implying that these recommendations came as a surprise and lacked something called ‘public engagement,'” said committee member Dave Olson. “I disagree. Our committee’s work is public engagement. We are city residents who volunteered to represent the public in a process that was open and transparent to all.”
However, the forum wasn’t a one-way conversation. Councilor Linda Glover criticized the commission members for publicly condemning the city council’s lukewarm response to the districting proposal last week.
“I was very disappointed to see members of your commission go on social media and attack us personally,” Glover said. “I think Vancouver is better than that.”
Glover didn’t specify which critiques she was referring to. A few examples can be found online.
One committee member, Noland Hoshino, posted on Facebook: “By doing nothing to change how our city council members are elected has lead us to an imbalance of representation. Creating three districts in Vancouver will give a voice to those neighborhoods who feel under-represented.”
Another committee member, Melissa Boles, drafted an open letter expressing her disappointment with the council.
“Our first priority was changing our city council to be elected by district, and the discussion did not go well,” Boles wrote. “I hope you remember that the residents of Vancouver that you represent are not just the people who look and live like you.”
The city council is scheduled to discuss the prospects of districts further at a two-hour workshop session on Aug. 5.