Vancouver may soon elect its city councilors by district instead of at-large if voters approve the latest recommendation from the city’s Charter Review Committee.
In a meeting Thursday evening, the committee agreed that breaking the city into districts would create a more financially and ethnically diverse city council, and hopefully more equitable representation for historically underrepresented parts of the city.
Running for city council is expensive and time-intensive. Districting could help to level the playing field between candidates from disparate neighborhoods, committee members concurred. It could also help diversify what continues to be an overwhelmingly white council roster.
“I’m not a bleeding heart, and I never have been. But I do believe in fairness,” said Esther Schrader, one of the committee’s 15 members. Dividing the city into districts, she said, would “push forward qualified people from minorities and from disadvantaged neighborhoods that aren’t at present even considering running for council.”
A clustered council
Currently, Vancouver’s six city councilors are elected at-large — any candidate who lives anywhere within city limits can run for any seat.
Vancouver Program and Policy Development Manager Jan Bader presented the committee with a map showing the results of that policy, marking where city councilors from 1998 to 2018 lived during their years as elected officials. The map showed that around half of the councilors clustered around Interstate 5, on the west side of the city. A few lived along Highway 14, and a couple more lived in the northeast neighborhoods. A big chunk of the city — north central and southeast Vancouver — saw zero representation at the city council level.
“When I look at this map alone, there’s a whole swath of neighborhoods that’s never had a representative in 20 years,” said committee member Lynn Samuels. “How do we engage this other population that is clearly not being engaged?”
Three or six?
The committee came to a consensus that districts were necessary. They also agreed that the districts should only limit primary elections, and that councilors should be elected at-large once they make it onto the general election ballot.
However, there was some disagreement on the appropriate number of districts the committee should recommend.
Some members pushed for six districts, with one councilor from each. Others argued for three districts, with two councilors from each district elected in alternating cycles every two years.
Dividing the city into six districts would ensure that every region of Vancouver got fair representation in the government, but it could be too limiting — and discourage qualified people from running if they happen to live near an incumbent.
“I think it would do more to divide our city to have six instead of three,” said committee member Mary Elkin. “I believe that three districts would be more unifying and keep the council aligned and concentrated on being responsible for the entire city.”
Fellow committee member Heather Sinnott countered that six districts would better serve the whole purpose of drawing district lines in the first place.
“I don’t know that we’re going to get enough fair representation with three districts,” Sinnott said.
Despite some disagreement, the committee came to a loose consensus that three districts would be the best recommendation to bring before the city council, with room to further divide into six districts when the charter is reviewed again in five years.
The Vancouver City Charter serves as a constitution for the city, setting into stone the policies and processes that dictate how government and staff operate. The document undergoes a review every five years by a committee appointed by city councilors.
Recommendations from the Charter Review Committee are just that — recommendations, and by no means binding.
The outcome of these committee meetings will go before the city council, which will decide whether or not to put those changes on a ballot before the voters. It’s rare for the council to ignore the recommendations altogether, though it technically can.
Any change to the city charter requires majority approval from the voters.
If the council moves forward with the charter committee’s recommendation, the question of whether to divide the city into three districts will likely appear on the 2019 general election ballot. If it passes, the districts will be in place for 2021 city council primary elections (there are no Vancouver city councilors up for re-election in 2020).
In addition to districts, the committee is recommending changes to how city councilors are given annual raises in response to an ill-advised 2016 incident that nearly saw the mayor receive a 117 percent pay bump. On that issue, the charter committee is considering a couple options — either increasing the number of members on the city’s Salary Review Commission, or abolishing the commission altogether and tying annual cost-of-living increases to some external formula like the Consumer Price Index.