Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Sept. 30, 2020

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Jayne: Diversify council for right reasons

By , Columbian Opinion Editor

It’s a tough one. Admittedly, it’s a tough one. Does diversity on a city council matter? Should it matter? Where do we draw the line between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing and maybe doing the right thing for the wrong reasons?

I know, I know, “diversity” is a loaded term these days. For some people, it is a cringe-inducing red flag of political correctness.

But for others it means political and economic access that allegedly is the hallmark of this country. And when a city council — one of the most accessible forms of government — is lacking ethnic, geographic and economic diversity, well, some questions should be asked. Because sometimes political correctness is better than being incorrect.

So, the Vancouver City Council is pondering a proposal to establish a Community Task Force on Council Membership. Which also could be called the Community Task Force for Passing the Buck. Or the Community Task Force Created Because We Have No Idea What to Do. In other words, there are no easy answers.

Vancouver, after all, was incorporated in 1857. That is 162 years ago, and since then, as far as anybody can tell, one black person has been elected to the city council. In at least the past 20 years, no councilors have come from the north-central part of the city. And in recent years, there has been one councilor who lives east of the Heights area — and he is retiring this year. All of which suggests that maybe the city could benefit from a broader mix of representation.

On the other hand, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Councilors are chosen in a citywide vote, and if enough residents think somebody is the best candidate, they get elected. The ballot doesn’t list residence or ethnic background.

All of which makes for an interesting discussion. The city’s Charter Review Commission, an advisory group that every five years takes a look at Vancouver’s form of government, has recommended choosing council members by district — in part to encourage some variety on the council.

This has proven difficult for the current councilors. Reluctant to make a decision, they are considering a task force to figure out how to promote diversity. Under the current system, all six council members and the mayor could live on the same street and attend the same church and belong to the same gym — theoretically. The result, over the years, has been a homogeneous council that looks like the Trump cabinet.

But while the council considers how to address the issue — or whether to address it at all — a bit of hypocrisy seeps into the discussion. Councilors say they are interested in opening the doors of diversity, but there is reason to question their sincerity.

Three current members originally joined the council by appointment, rather than election — including two in the past 19 months. For example, Erik Paulsen was picked by council members after Alishia Topper resigned upon her election as Clark County treasurer. Paulsen was a worthy choice, and he deserves to retain his seat in the November election. But the appointment of a qualified minority candidate or a qualified candidate from the east side would have been the ideal avenue for improving the mix of the city council — if councilors truly cared about such things.

The most important thing, obviously, is to wind up with the best people on the city council, lest we have a kakistocracy. When the Editorial Board interviews candidates, we typically look for somebody who can articulate a vision for the city, has extensive community service and can see the nuances of a particular issue rather than being an ideologue. I’m guessing most voters do the same.

There are no set criteria for finding such candidates, and that is what makes this a tough one. Because while there can be benefits to having a broader mix of people representing the citizens of Vancouver, changing the makeup of the city council in a quest to meet racial, geographic or economic quotas would amount to doing the right thing for the wrong reason.