In the run-up to this week’s primary election, the issue of whether to elect representatives to the Everett City Council by districts, rather than the current at-large system, was a major issues for candidates in all three council races as well as the mayor’s race.
It’s likely to continue to be a focus as candidates answer questions at forums and front doors as the primary’s top two finalists move on to the Nov. 7 general election.
But the question itself won’t be on that Nov. 7 ballot.
The night before the primary election, the Everett City Council voted 5-2 not to put a proposal sought by Everett Districts Now before voters. While backed by some 3,000 signatures of Everett voters, the petition did not gather the 8,100 signatures that would have mandated its placement on the ballot.
There are legitimate concerns about such a change to how the council is elected, and upholding the signature requirement for such petitions was the correct vote by the council. But the number of signatures that Everett Districts Now was able to gather shows there’s enough interest within the city to continue the discussion on districts, representation and civic engagement in Everett.
“There is no better referendum than putting this before the voters,” said City Council member Brenda Stonecipher, who with council member Judy Tuohy voted in the minority.
Actually, that ought to be the next step.
An advisory vote should go on a future ballot that would determine public support for electing some members of the city council by districts. Depending on the outcome, the city could then begin a process, with ample public participation, that would develop a districting plan, including the number of council members to elect by districts, where district boundaries would be set and how and when to adjust boundaries as the city grows.
While Everett Districts Now’s proposal did much of that work in advance, the question of whether to make the change should have been separated from the particulars of how districts would have worked. As opinions among candidates for city council and mayor have shown, some have been generally supportive of the idea but opposed to the proposal’s details and map.
But districts, on their own, shouldn’t be the only initiative that city officials and residents pursue as they look to increase voter participation and civic engagement throughout the city, in particular among the city’s lower-income and more racially diverse neighborhoods were voter registration is lower than in the city’s middle-income and more affluent neighborhoods.
With a population nearing 110,000, less than half, 52,000 are registered to vote; another 20,000 to 25,000 are eligible but not registered.
In February, when the City Council’s general government subcommittee recommended to the council not to move forward with the district elections proposal, it outlined several other recommendations that the city should undertake, including a voter registration drive focused on areas of lower participation; opportunities to train future civic leaders and work with organizations in the community, in particular the League of Women Voters and the county’s NAACP chapter, to offer more training on race and economic diversity.
Some of that has already begun.
The city recently announced its Everett Essentials civic academy, the first effort of its type, which will offer a schedule of classes on Monday evenings and some Saturday field trips, between Sept. 25 and Nov. 13.
“We’ve heard from community members that they want to know more about their local government, including how they can effectively engage in our processes and programs,” Meghan Pembroke, the city’s communications director, said in a recent release.
The course will cover Everett history and demographics, public safety, government structure, community services and Everett’s future. Students can tour city facilities and develop an understanding of city operations and how they can be a part of local government decisions and projects.
Residents who participate would have the background knowledge and confidence to get involved in the issues before the city and who to contact with concerns and ideas. The course also would be good training for those interested in serving on one of the city’s many boards and commissions. Among the current and upcoming vacancies are positions with the city’s animal shelter advisory board, its board of appeals, neighborhood councils, the diversity board, the senior center advisory board and the Everett Housing Authority.
That all three city council elections drew two challengers to incumbents from diverse backgrounds and from neighborhoods across the city shows an increased interest to participate in Everett’s civic affairs.
Regardless of how the city elects the City Council, officials and residents need to develop more ways to encourage that desire to participate and use it to Everett’s benefit.
To register and for more details on the city of Everett’s civic academy, go to www.everettwa.gov/everettessentials. Classes are limited to 30 students and priority will be given to applicants who are new to civic engagement. Tuition is $50, but financial assistance is available. Applications are due Aug. 15.