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March 7, 2021

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Vancouver Task Force on Council Representation in search of consensus

Smaller measures find agreement, but one year in, big-ticket items remain controversial

By , Columbian staff writer
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After a year of debating strategies to diversify Vancouver’s government, the Task Force on Council Representation remains divided on which measures will ultimately move the needle.

“We started our work literally a year ago, and it’s been quite a year,” Tanisha Harris, one of the task force members, said during the group’s long-awaited presentation to the city council on Monday. “We are facing a lot of issues when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

On a few smaller-scale proposals, there’s consensus:

• Vancouver city councilors should liaise more directly with neighborhood associations and community organizations, inviting representatives from those groups to meetings that directly impact them.

• They should give presentations to high school classrooms in the hopes of boosting engagement among young people.

• They should hire an American Sign Language translator for public meetings.

• They should conduct more in-person forums in various locations around the city.

Those limited measures are relatively easy to implement and, according to a public survey, enjoy broad support among the community, the task force reported. But the big-ticket items remain controversial, and one of them could require a change in state law.

Big ideas, big challenges

Implementing citywide electoral districts remains a trickier proposal. Ranked-choice voting — sometimes called instant-runoff voting — is the other. Neither is a new idea, though neither has picked up much steam at city hall in the last two decades.

The seven-member task force was split nearly down the middle as to whether ranked-choice voting or districting would be feasible and effective.

Mary Elkin, a task force member who supports districting, pointed out the existing citywide elections system had led to an all-white council geographically concentrated on the west side of Vancouver. Of 10 cities in the Pacific Northwest with populations comparable to Vancouver, she said, eight of them use districts.

“Our current, at-large-only system of electing our city leaders has led to a current city council that represents no one living on the east side of our city, no people of color, reflects only homeowners and (those) of the same socioeconomic class,” Elkin said. “Wanting a change requires a change to status quo.”

Diana Perez, a former city council candidate who serves on the task force, pointed out one concrete outcome of that disparity: “There are no public art installations on the east side of 205,” she said.

Both expressed support for a hybrid district system, in which primary elections would be held within districts and general elections would take place citywide. The community survey that saw broad public support for small-scale measures to improve diversity also reported widespread approval of districting — 75 percent of those surveyed agreed to election by district, and 45 percent strongly agreed. Only 15 percent of those surveyed disagreed.

Pat Jollota, another member of the task force and a former city councilor, countered that implementing districts could ultimately discourage diverse candidates from running because it would limit the seats they can campaign for.

“That’s what deters minorities and low-income (people) from running. If there is a strong incumbent, they know they’re not going to stand a chance of getting elected, so they don’t,” Jollota said.

Rethinking voting

The task force’s other main consideration Monday was ranked-choice voting. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank all the candidates on their ballot by order of preference, instead of just selecting their top choice. The system is currently used by about 20 different cities around the country.

Proponents say that ranked-choice voting leads to less contentious elections, because candidates must focus on building a coalition. It also frees up candidates to run for office without fear of “spoiling” an election for another person on the ballot, and it frees up voters to choose a candidate based on their values and not based on whether or not they think they can win a majority.

In 1997, Vancouver agreed. A ballot measure passed that would amend the city charter to allow for “instant-runoff” voting. But the system was not implemented by the city council, due to legal challenges from the state: a city in Washington is not allowed to eliminate its primary election. Changing that will require a lobbying effort on Vancouver’s behalf.

Elkin pointed out, however, that changing the city’s format of elections during a period of historically low trust in democratic systems could prove a mistake.

“It would require a long — and expensive, probably — educational campaign,” Elkin said.

Charter review started process

The city council formed the Task Force on Council Representation in late 2019, partially in response to the recommendations that sprung from the city’s charter review process.

The Charter Review Committee had strongly urged the city council to consider dividing the city into three electoral districts as a way to make Vancouver’s government more representative of its population. Running a citywide election takes the kind of money and time usually only available to a certain class of resident, they reasoned — smaller-scale elections, in which candidates lived near the constituents they sought to represent, would make a government seat more accessible for people without as many resources.

The council shelved the Charter Review Committee’s proposal, instead establishing the seven-member task force that would more broadly examine ways to diversity the city’s leadership. At the time, some newly minted members of the task force expressed skepticism that their work would lead to much substantial change — Perez had called it a “punt” on the districting issue, pointing out that the pros and cons had already been thoroughly weighed in the charter review process.

The task force’s report to the city council was a long time coming. Its schedule was pushed back by three months due to the COVID-19 restrictions that temporarily suspended the group’s meetings. On the initial timeline, any measure that required voter approval was supposed to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The council didn’t take any formal action following the group’s presentation Monday.

“We certainly have been given several different recommendations to ponder the proposals that are short term and long term. We’ll have a great opportunity to discuss them and prepare our community for most of them,” Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said. “This is not done, it’s simply moving to Phase II.”

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