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Jan. 27, 2023

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Vancouver eyes task force to diversify city council

Panel would likely plan for electoral districts, work to boost representation

By , Columbian staff writer

The city of Vancouver might establish a task force dedicated to improving diversity and representation among city councilors.

The proposed ad hoc committee, tentatively called the Community Task Force on Council Membership, would focus first and foremost on the possibility of electoral districts. But the committee’s seven members might also be encouraged to explore other ideas that could stir up more representation from underrepresented populations in the city.

“The objective of this process would be increasing geographic, socioeconomic and ethnic diversity on the council,” said Jan Bader, Vancouver’s program and policy development manager, in a presentation to the city council Monday evening.

Under the proposed timeline, Vancouver residents could vote on whether to form electoral districts in November 2020.

Shelved, then back on table

The idea of electoral districts was first raised in June by the Charter Review Committee, an advisory group that reviews the city’s governing document every five years. The committee hailed electoral districts as its top priority, strongly urging the city council to put the question before voters in the 2019 general election.

Running for city council is expensive and time-intensive, posing a barrier for some who would otherwise try. Breaking the city into districts, the committee reasoned, could make it easier for candidates without mountains of resources to launch smaller, more tightly knit campaigns.

The committee also hoped that forcing geographic diversity could break up a racially homogenous council dais; since 1857, Vancouver has elected one black councilor. In the last 20 years, north-central Vancouver — home to high concentrations of renters, low-income earners and Hispanic residents — hasn’t had a single representative.

“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 in June.

Councilors ultimately decided over the summer to shelve the proposal, drawing sharp criticism online and in public forums from Charter Review Committee members and other local stakeholders, such as the Southwest Washington chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Task force without a clear task

The exact scope and direction of the proposed Community Task Force on Council Membership remains a bit hazy and was the subject of some confusion Monday evening.

Some councilors said they wanted the new group to engage in a broad discussion on increasing diversity, then report its recommendations on how to accomplish that goal. Others hoped for something more focused — a roadmap for how, exactly, to implement electoral districts, so that if voters approve the changes to the city charter on the November 2020 ballot, there’s already a plan in place.

“I believe our roles as policymakers is to provide clear direction,” Councilor Laurie Lebowsky said. “I thought the purpose of this task force was to show how council districting could be implemented if approved by the voters.”

Mayor Pro Tem Bart Hansen said that prescribing voting districts as the task force’s top priority would ultimately undermine its work by “throwing the solution in front of the problem.”

The council did agree, however, on the group’s selection process.

Each of the city’s six councilors and the mayor will appoint one member, subject to approval from the entire city council, no later than Nov. 18. The group will meet 12 times between December and June 2020, ultimately presenting its conclusions to the city council in July.

Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle acknowledged that the council would first need to provide clearer direction.

“When we have this task force, they’re going to need to watch this video (recording of the workshop), so they understand the spirit of the council,” she said.

Columbian staff writer