The new voting district boundaries in Pasco that were approved by a federal judge in January have led to a slight shakeup in council positions.
The judge’s order immediately put into place a six-district plan with one at-large seat, eliminating a second open position.
But it left the residents of one district without geographic representation, and moved the home addresses of two council members into districts to which they were not originally elected.
City staff recommended an interim fix until elections later this year result in proper alignment.
That way, constituents would know who to contact for an issue in their district, and the council would know which position needed to be filled if faced with another unexpected vacancy, like last summer’s death of Councilman Mike Garrison.
However, the proposal was met with resistance by Councilman Tom Larsen, because staff suggested moving him from an at-large seat to the vacant District 1 in central Pasco. Larsen lives on West Pearl Street on the eastern end of District 5, not far from the District 1 boundaries.
“No. 7 is mine,” Larsen said, insisting he be given the opportunity to keep the at-large seat. He was referencing Position 7, which was given to Mayor Matt Watkins.
Staff recommended keeping Watkins in the single at-large seat because he was more recently re-elected to the position, said Deputy City Manager Stan Strebel. Watkins started serving his fourth term in January 2016.
In addition to Larsen, the resolution affects Councilman Al Yenney, who moves from District 1 to 2, and puts Councilman Bob Hoffmann in District 6.
Hoffmann originally was elected to District 3, but found himself in District 2 with the 2015 redistricting system. He retained District 2 after the death of the district’s other council member, Garrison.
Saul Martinez retains District 3 and Chi Flores District 4. Mayor Pro Tem Rebecca Francik represents District 5.
“This isn’t assigning who’s going to run for which seat in the fall,” City Manager Dave Zabell explained at a meeting. “This is just to put a name to a district.”
All seven seats are up for election this year, based on Senior Judge Lonny R. Suko’s ruling in federal court. Incumbents who want to run again can file in May for their geographic district or the at-large seat.
Larsen questioned if maybe the city should appeal that ruling, which was in the city’s favor in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of Pasco resident Bertha Aranda Glatt.
Glatt’s claim was that Latino candidates in Pasco aren’t given an equal opportunity because of the longtime council system of five districts and two at-large seats. Her attorneys argued that the system violated Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, and suggested a seven single-member district plan.
Suko found that the “remedial plan” offered by Pasco is legally acceptable, with a Latino majority in three of the six new districts.
Yenney noted that he was in favor of putting the original 5-2 plan before the judge. He said he will support the current decision because appealing it could cost the city $2 million to $3 million.
City Attorney Leland Kerr said it would be really tough for Pasco to argue that it now wants to appeal the partial consent decree it put forth in federal court.
When the resolution came up for a discussion again at the Feb. 21 meeting, Larsen initially stayed silent, until Watkins asked if he had any more concerns about the issue.
“I believe that is something that … the judge got wrong. We know it is wrong, and we should not let that kind of thing stand in our way of doing (what) we know that we should not do,” Larsen said.
The councilman then rambled incoherently, talking about making the city a better place and for council members to see what they seek in themselves.
Watkins tried to wrap up the discussion and bring it to a vote, but Larsen continued to say that he should not be robbed of his original position number.
The six other members voted in favor of the resolution for reassignments, but Larsen didn’t give a response.
Watkins asked if he wanted to register a “no” vote, and an apparently confused Larsen then asked what that would mean. Larsen repeated that he didn’t want to be District 1, and said he wanted to stay with the city and not lose his seat.
He also was given the option to abstain from the vote.
“Well, I better vote the way that everybody here would be happy to get, right?” Larsen said, looking to the near-empty audience.
“How many would like that?” he added, raising his right arm.
When Watkins asked if he was voting yes, Larsen replied, “Well, let’s do that then.”