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Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Nov. 28, 2023

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Task force to search for ways to increase Vancouver city council’s diversity

By , Columbian staff writer
5 Photos
Diana Perez, a member of the new Task Force on Council Representation, attends a meet-and-greet hosted by two business owners on July 30.
Diana Perez, a member of the new Task Force on Council Representation, attends a meet-and-greet hosted by two business owners on July 30. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Seven members have been appointed to a new Task Force on Council Representation, an advisory group established to try to improve diversity in Vancouver’s government.

The group has been instructed to find ways to make the city council — which is homogeneous in race and economic class, and even somewhat geographically homogeneous — more representative of the city it serves.

But some members of the new task force are skeptical about how much impact their work will ultimately have on shaping city policy.

“It’s not the best use of city funds, in my opinion. I don’t think that a task force to address a decision that they should have been more than capable of (making) is a smart move,” said Diana Perez, who was one of the members appointed to the task force last month by the city council.

“Who knows? Maybe later it’ll prove different.”

Along with Perez, the new advisory body consists of Mary Elkin, Tanisha Harris, Pat Jollota, Kala Magdugula, Harold Westby and Glen Yung.

The council decided to form the task force after it shelved a high-priority recommendation from the most recent charter review process to split Vancouver into three electoral districts. The Charter Review Committee pushed for electoral districts as a way to make running for city council less daunting for people without lots of time and money, and hopefully encourage candidates from underrepresented populations.

Instead of putting the issue before voters, the city council decided the idea needed further study, and floated the idea for a task force that would look at districting and at any other proposal that might improve diversity.

“I just feel like the decision on districting has been punted,” said Perez, adding that she believes electoral districts can be an effective tool when combined with other policies. “We want our city to be represented. If districting is the tool to do that, let’s go for it. There’s no reason to keep stalling.”

Most major cities in Washington elect their councilors through electoral districts, or a mix of at-large and districts. The list includes Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Yakima, Everett, Bellingham, Camas, Centralia, Pullman, Pasco and Wenatchee.

This isn’t the first time a recommendation to form districts has come out of the charter review process, which takes place every five years.

“It comes up pretty frequently. Just about every charter review, they come up with ‘Oh, let’s have districts,'” said Jollota, a local historian and former city councilor.

Jollota, too, expressed some skepticism about the task force, though for a different reason. She’s not a fan of electoral districts, she said, or the way they divide a city.

“I’ve seen other cities with ward government, and I don’t much like what I see. You’re no longer responsible to the whole city, you’re just responsible for your little area, and you don’t listen to anyone from outside,” Jollota said.

“You need good candidates, more than where they’re from — you’ve got to have a good human being who’s interested and capable,” Jollota added.

Perez also wondered if the recommendations from the Task Force on Council Representation would end up going anywhere.

“How much weight is our decision really going to be (given)?” Perez asked. “It’s like, wow. Gee. Another task force.”

As it stands

Of the six-person city council and the mayor, all are white. That’s historically held true. Vancouver has elected one black city councilor in its 162-year history — Willard Nettles, who served in the 1970s.

Though half of the city’s population is made up of renters, everyone on the city council owns their homes. As for geographic diversity, two of the city councilors are neighbors. Erik Paulsen and Linda Glover both live in Dubois Park, where the two homes currently listed for sale online are listed at $1.3 million and $2.65 million, respectively.

Two more live near downtown: Laurie Lebowsky lives in the Lincoln neighborhood, and Ty Stober lives in Hough. Bart Hansen is the only councilor who lives north of Highway 500, in West Minnehaha. And Bill Turlay, who’s retiring, is the only councilor who lives east of Interstate 205.

“When you have the majority of your city councilmembers being from downtown, it’s pretty obvious that there’s a disconnect from neighborhoods,” Perez said. “The right thing to do is, how do we make sure that all people in Vancouver have equal opportunities to be involved?”

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Columbian staff writer