The Franklin County auditor has told Pasco he will not allow city council candidates to be voted on by district, instead of citywide, in the general election.
City Council members and staff have been exploring the idea of keeping the votes within each district, particularly after a number of Pasco residents said citywide elections dilute the Hispanic vote.
Last month, the council set new voting boundaries for its five districts, giving Districts 1 and 2 Hispanic majorities at just over 50 percent each.
Currently, the voting district will select the top two candidates in the primary election if three or more file for a specific seat. The two candidates with the most votes then move on to the November election, with the voting open to all city residents.
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Pasco also has two council members elected at large.
City Manager Dave Zabell sent a letter earlier this month to county Auditor Matt Beaton saying that the state law, “when applied to a population base such as the city of Pasco, has a high probability of diluting and marginalizing the voting rights of minority groups in violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act.”
“Under the federal supremacy clause, to the extent the state statute conflicts with the federal statute, the state law must yield,” Zabell added. He also pointed out that the at-large general election exposes the city to liability under the federal act.
Beaton quickly quashed efforts to hold district-based elections. He told Pasco that the county office has no latitude on which laws it chooses to follow when it comes to voting procedures.
Beaton cited his oath of office in the reply letter, “because I want you to know that I cannot, and will not, ‘reconsider’ or ‘agree’ to conduct an election that is contrary to Washington State Law.”
“I appreciate the legal opinion of your City Attorney and your willingness to share it, but I will not act on it,” he wrote.
On Monday night, Zabell said in all fairness that Beaton has an obligation under state law and feels he is doing what is right.
The city has been redrawing its council boundaries every two years because of Pasco’s growth to the west. Under Pasco code, the population within each district must not deviate by more than 10 percent from other districts.
The 2010 U.S. Census showed Pasco’s population is 56 percent Hispanic, with the voter-age population at 31 percent Hispanic.
At a February public hearing, Pasco resident and former councilwoman Eileen Crawford said she understands that council members represent the entire city, but said their first priority should be to the district where they live and which voted them into office.
Two bills intended to allow cities to change their voting method to a single-member district were before the state Legislature this session, but both died.
The other school of thought, Zabell told the Herald, is that, “Everybody should have a say who’s representing them on the council because City Council members should be representing the whole city, and not just a district or neighborhood.”
Up for election this year will be District 1 (Councilman Al Yenney), District 5 (Councilwoman Rebecca Francik) and an at-large position (Mayor Matt Watkins). The filing period is May 11-15.
The council will vote on an ordinance at the May 4 meeting that cleans up some outdated language in the Pasco Municipal Code.
Council members also must decide whether to adopt a resolution stating their support for district-based general elections and willingness to keep working with state politicians to develop legislation modifying the current law.
Yenney said he is in favor of the resolution, not only because the city should do what it can to avoid legal problems, but because district-only elections are considerably cheaper for candidates rather than running for the whole city.
Watkins said it appears the council members are “all on the same page” with the issue, but encouraged residents to attend the next meeting if they want to share their opinion.