The Pasco City Council unanimously agreed this week to file a consent decree with federal court that ultimately could lead to candidates being voted on by districts, and not citywide.
The stipulated agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is the first step in the process to address Pasco’s council election system.
The ACLU, on behalf of lifelong Pasco resident Bertha Aranda Glatt, sued Pasco earlier this month. The lawsuit alleges the city’s at-large method in the general election violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Pasco officials have acknowledged the likely violation in their electoral process, but are prohibited under state law from making any changes.
That’s why the ACLU filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Washington. It requires a federal judge to override state law and implement a remedy.
Council members already have said it is one of their goals to have the issue resolved before the 2017 election cycle.
The case has been assigned to Senior Judge Lonny R. Suko, online court records show. There is no hearing date set.
After learning of the Monday night vote, ACLU-WA staff attorney La Rond Baker said they’re “pleased that the Pasco City Council has recognized that their current election system violates federal law.”
“We look forward to working with Pasco officials to ensure that the new elections system will actually provide the Latino community a meaningful voice in the City Council elections,” Baker added in a news release.
The lawsuit says without district-based elections, the electoral power of Pasco’s Latino voters is diluted.
A Latino person has run for a Pasco City Council position almost every election cycle since 1990, but has never won a contested race, the ACLU notes.
Councilman Saul Martinez was first appointed in 2010, and ran unopposed in the 2011 and 2013 elections.
On Monday, Martinez said it is a very complicated issue for a normal citizen, so the community may be depending on elected officials to make the right decision.
Only a few people addressed the council during the public hearing.
Martinez has some reservations about the process, though he believes the board should look like the community, he said.
“If somebody is going to make a decision on my behalf in the city, I think that everybody should have a right to vote for that person who’s going to make a decision on my behalf. That’s the part I’m struggling with,” Martinez said.
Martinez does not think the election system is at fault for why there aren’t more Latinos on the council, but said there are a lot of variables that may come into play with the city’s majority group that many don’t understand.
“Obviously we’re just trying to make it to where this system is going to be a fair system for everybody and to do the right thing, the American thing to do,” Martinez said.
The city has a page on its website — in English and Spanish — dedicated to keeping the public informed and updated about the ACLU litigation and scheduled meetings on the topic. It includes links to the recorded council meetings and staff reports.
The issue next returns to the City Council on Sept. 6 for a public hearing about voting systems.
Pasco currently has two at-large seats and five district representatives.
Some Hispanic residents and the Latino Coalition have said their preference is seven single-member districts for proper representation. The ACLU states that is the only acceptable solution under the federal law.
“This is a big step forward,” Glatt said in an ACLU news release. “I hope that when deciding what election system to implement, the city will keep in mind that all voices of the community need to be represented on the city council.”