Yakima’s expensive, years-long legal fight with the American Civil Liberties Union will likely come to an end Tuesday, but not without the city getting something in return.
A majority of City Council members are expected to vote to rescind the city’s appeal of a federal ruling that overhauled Yakima’s elections and ushered in the council’s first three elected Latino members in 2015. If that happens, Yakima will owe more than $1.8 million in legal fees and costs to the ACLU as ordered by a federal judge.
However, Washington ACLU legal director Emily Chiang said Friday the civil rights group would give $100,000 of that back to the city under a tentative agreement. The specifics haven’t been hashed out, but Chiang said the money would be dedicated to efforts to “improve equal opportunities for Yakima residents” to access city government.
“We brought the litigation in the first place out of a legitimate concern for Yakima residents to access city government,” Chiang said by phone from Seattle on Friday. “It’s part of that same motivation.”
Chiang would not elaborate on the proposal, saying the deal had not yet been approved by either side.
Chiang said the ACLU also would agree to waive the interest accumulated on the unpaid $1.8 million ordered by the court in June 2015. That amount is estimated to be about $10,000 based on current federal post-judgment interest rates.
The ACLU sued the city in 2012, saying its voting system was unfair to Latinos. A federal judge agreed and ordered the city to revamp its voting system to districts based on population, rather than estimated eligible voters, and eliminated at-large positions.
Councilwoman Carmen Mendez said Friday she believes the decision to drop the appeal is “long overdue.”
“We are ready to move on and start addressing some of the needs of our community,” Mendez said. “By rescinding the appeal, we will move toward that direction.”
Mendez is expected to be joined by Councilwomen Avina Gutierrez, Dulce Gutierrez and Holly Cousens. Kathy Coffey may also support it, but said Friday she wished the council had waited until a similar case in the U.S. Supreme Court has been decided.
That case, Evenwel v. Abbott out of Texas, is the linchpin to the city’s appeal, as it could declare unconstitutional the population method used to draft Yakima’s seven new districts. Most national observers following that case believe the ruling, expected by June, will preserve districting by total population – as opposed to maps based on an estimate of eligible voters – by either a court majority or a 4-4 split.
The prognosis stems from the death of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative members of the court, who voted to strike down other elements of the federal Voting Rights Act in the past.
“With the passing of Justice Scalia, our chances are very remote and I also think it’s time to move on,” Coffey said. “I’m not prepared to say how I’ll vote, but I think it’s pretty clear this has a majority.”
Councilman Bill Lover said he will “probably” vote against killing the appeal. He said the council should wait for a decision in the Supreme Court case.
“A decision could be out in a few weeks,” Lover said.
Councilwomen Maureen Adkison, Avina Gutierrez, Dulce Gutierrez and Cousens did not return calls Friday. Dulce Gutierrez, Avina Gutierrez and Cousens have repeatedly stated their desire to end the appeal, while Adkison has wanted to continue the appeal but also previously acknowledged a majority of the council no longer supports it.
In other business, the council will consider options to reduce budgeted spending and balance the 2016 budget. The general government budget is facing a $750,000 shortfall, about 1 percent of the $73 million general government budget.
About one-third of the proposed savings would come from not implementing new programs that were proposed for this year, including a neighborhood partnerships office that would have cost more than $200,000 and a “community court” diversion program for low-level offenders for $64,000. It would also cut funding for two new police officer positions that have not yet been filled and had been intended to aid a new federal crime task force for a savings of $182,000.
The proposal also suggests hiking fees substantially on a summer playground program at Kissel Park that currently costs $20 for the 10-week, daylong program. That would increase to $300 and generate about $30,000, assuming about 100 children participate as in previous years, according to a council memo.
The program currently requires 11 staff and costs the city about $51,400 while only pulling about $2,000 back into city coffers.
The proposal would also eliminate the annual citizen survey ($34,000) and the annual city employee survey ($5,000). Also, it would cut $54,000 in spending from the Economic Development Department for promoting events.