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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Task force floats ideas to diversify Vancouver government

Ranked-choice voting, neighborhood outreach discussed as potential solutions to council homogeny

By Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 21, 2020, 10:19pm

A group tasked with making Vancouver’s city leadership more diverse unveiled the preliminary results of their work over the last year.

At the city council meeting Monday evening, the Community Task Force on Council Representation offered a series of strategies that could help improve government participation among underrepresented populations in the city — people of color, younger people, less wealthy residents and those with disabilities.

Monday’s presentation was just a check-in on the ongoing work of the seven-member task force, appointed by the council late last year. The group will present its final recommendations at the Dec. 21 city council meeting. At that point, the council can decide which measures to advance and which to reject.

“We’ve really put some sincere thought and effort into coming up with these ideas,” said Glen Yung, one of the task force members.

The other members of the group are Mary Elkin, Tanisha Harris, Pat Jollota, Aemri Marks, Michael Martin and Diana Perez.

The problem

The Vancouver City Council is entirely made up of white members. That’s held true through most of the government’s history — in 163 years, the city has elected exactly one Black city councilor.

The six councilors and the mayor have more than their race in common. They’re all homeowners, though half of the population they represent lives in homes that they rent. Most of them live on the west side of the city, near downtown, while a larger portion of Vancouver residents live on the east side. Other boards and commissions appointed by the city council also tend to lack diversity.

A major portion of the task force’s early work, they reported, was just drafting a formal problem statement:

“There is a perceived lack of diversity on the Vancouver City Council and its appointed boards and commissions. Direct and indirect representation of underserved groups and neighborhoods in the community needs to improve and increase.”

COVID-19 derailed the group’s original meeting schedule. But as Perez and Harris told The Columbian in June, the task force felt a new sense of urgency once it reconvened after a three-month hiatus — their renewed discussions took place against a backdrop of widespread protests for social justice.

In Portland, and in other cities across the nation, those protests are still taking place.

The protests made “a huge impact on how people are seeing the issues,” Perez said at the time. “It’s going to be prudent for us to take that moment, and use it to really make a difference.”

In July, the city council unanimously voted on a proclamation vowing to fight systemic racism and its”many manifestations in our community.”

Potential solutions

Formation of the task force stemmed in part from a recommendation that came out of last year’s charter review process. That committee pushed, not for the first time, for Vancouver to go the route of other similarly-sized cities in the state and adopt electoral districts. Districts encourage diversity in leadership because they allow candidates to run smaller-scale campaigns — it takes a lot of time and money to launch a citywide campaign, privileges that many people in underserved populations don’t have. Districts can also help ensure that races include candidates from majority-minority neighborhoods.

Districts are still very much on the proposed list of solutions to the city’s diversity problem, the task force reported Monday night. However, members had differing opinions on how effective they might be in Vancouver.

The other major change on the table is ranked-choice voting. That’s a proposal that’s been knocking around Vancouver City Hall since the late 1990s, when voters approved a proposal for “instant runoff voting” that was later shot down in court.

Ranked-choice ballots allow voters to rate candidates in order of preference, rather than just selecting a single favorite. Proponents argue that it leads to more diverse, civil elections that reward coalition-building over mudslinging.

“When we first started, I was 100 percent in the camp that districting would be the answer, and I still am a believer that would help our community,” Elkin said. “(But) I really became a true fan of ranked-choice voting, and I’m really hoping we can find a way that we can implement it and comply with the laws of the land.”

The task force detailed other ways that city leadership might drum up more representation from underrepresented communities. One idea would be to divide the city’s neighborhood associations up among city councilors, who would then attend meetings and concentrate their outreach efforts regionally. That way, residents living in different areas of the city would know where to turn with a question or problem.

“I think that would really help when a citizen is looking for who to talk to,” Councilor Sarah Fox agreed. “I think they might feel a little more heard and responded to.”

Other potential solutions included a campaign voucher or stipend program — another way of eliminating some of the financial barriers to running for office — as well as built-in child care at city meetings. A youth council could help foster a pipeline of future city leaders.

The task force also floated the idea of switching city elections to even years, though that would require a change in state law.

During Monday’s meeting, city councilors expressed appreciation to the group for their work. A few also requested the task force nail down some priorities before they present their final recommendations in December.

“You have brought back a broad array of possibilities,” Councilor Linda Glover said. “It’s so big, how can we get our hands around it?”

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Columbian staff writer