The Pasco City Council voted Monday night on how its members should be elected in an attempt to improve minority representation.
The council voted 5-1 for a system that would elect six from districts with one at-large position. The plan is expected to create three Latino-majority districts.
Their choice will now be submitted to U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington in an effort to override a state law that does not allow district-based elections in non-charter cities such as Pasco.
It will be up to a federal judge to decide if Pasco can change its system for the general election. If granted, the council is on record now preferring the six-one district system.
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District-based — rather than citywide — elections would improve Latino representation on the council, the council asserts.
The lone dissenter on Monday was Councilman Al Yenney, who wanted to keep the current system with five districts and two at-large seats.
“When we’re elected to council we’re elected to represent all citizens,” Yenney said during the discussion.
A third choice could have resulted in all seven members coming from individual districts, which was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
The Latino Coalition of Tri-Cities said the council’s decision “will undoubtedly be fought” by the ACLU.
Mayor Matt Watkins praised Monday’s decision.
“We’ve done a good job of recognizing that there is an issue.... I’m proud of what we’ve done in a relatively short period of time,” he said.
We’ve done a good job of recognizing that there is an issue.... I’m proud of what we’ve done in a relatively short period of time.
Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins
Bertha Aranda Glatt, a failed city council candidate represented by the ACLU, sued the city in August, alleging the current system violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
The lawsuit asserts that the current method dilutes the power of the city’s Latino voters and deprives them of an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
Latinos make up 32 percent of the city’s voting population and 56 percent of its overall population, yet no Latino has ever won a contested election to the Pasco City Council.
In Pasco’s current system, five of the elected positions are voted on by district in the primary election, but by all city voters in the general election. The remaining two positions are at-large positions in both the primary and general elections.
The city unsuccessfully supported a legislative change to the law in 2015 and 2016.
City attorneys worked with ACLU legal staff on a decree that would allow the federal court to override state law to implement a district-based solution. A similar change in Yakima led to the election of two Latinos to the city council last fall, a first.
A statement by the Latino Coalition of Tri-Cities said, “In the Yakima case, any deviation from a seven (7) single member district system was met with great opposition from both the ACLU and community. Such proposed remedy was ultimately thrown out by the federal judge presiding over the Yakima lawsuit. ... With this vote, the city will be setting themselves up for a fight they can’t win.”
“The at-large system of voting in Pasco and many other cities has impermissibly denied Latinos/as an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. That’s easy to understand but yet the city council can’t quite come to that conclusion. The status quo has not worked in the city of Pasco,” said the statement.
The city maintains a website in both English and Spanish about the proposed change. It wants the new system in place for the 2017 election.
The council currently has six members following the death of Councilman Mike Garrison in July.