Everett committee scraps geographic districts for council members

EVERETT — The Everett City Council’s general government subcommittee is recommending the city move forward with a number of initiatives intended to boost civic engagement.

But the recommendations also spell the end, at least for the near future, of a movement that wanted to elect City Council members by geographic districts.

“They’re bending over backward to reach out to the rest of the city of Everett, and all of that’s good stuff, but yeah, it does look like it’s not going to move forward,” said Lois Wentink, a spokeswoman for the districting committee for the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County.

The League hopes to have a districting initiative on the general election ballot in November, she said.

Districting was proposed by Lowell resident Megan Dunn in 2015 as a way of ensuring that the council would better represent the interests of the entire city. Right now, six of the seven council members live in the city’s northern neighborhoods.

The local League of Women Voters supported the issue during the city’s Charter Review Commission meetings in 2016.

The Charter Review Commission voted 11-3 against recommending that the measure go on the general election ballot in November 2016. The City Council then assigned the issue to the government committee for study.

That group spent months gathering data about voting in Everett going back to 1981, said Councilman Paul Roberts, the committee’s chairman.

“We concluded from the data that the issues we were considering were lack of citizen participation and engagement,” Roberts told the rest of the council.

The data show that Everett’s voting pattern matches that of other parts of the country, where voter participation is higher in wealthier neighborhoods, such as Northwest and Port Gardner, and lower in poorer neighborhoods in northeast Everett and along Casino Road.

“Over 35 years the voting pattern in the city has not changed,” he said.

A draft report of the committee’s work said only 52,000 people are registered to vote, out of a population of 105,000 in Everett. About 25,000 more people are eligible but haven’t registered.

That registration rate could exacerbate problems with representation under a districting plan, according to the report. If those registered voters were divided into five districts of roughly 10,400 people each, and if an off-year election had a turnout of 20 percent, a contested election could be decided with as few as 1,000 votes, the report says.

Voters elect their council members on criteria such as experience, character and positions on issues, Roberts said.

“Geography is a legitimate concern, but it doesn’t trump those others,” Roberts said. “When you draw districts, you essentially isolate that interest as the primary concern.”

Instead, the report lists other actions the city could take to increase civic participation. The recommendations include: a voter registration drive concentrated on neighborhoods with low participation; additional get-out-the-vote efforts; leadership training opportunities; and working with organizations such as the League and the NAACP to provide more training in the areas of race and diversity.

More than one initiative under way is already focused on those goals. In December, the City Council passed a resolution declaring Everett to be welcoming to everyone. The new city budget includes additional funding and staff for the Office of Neighborhoods, and in January, Council President Judy Tuohy assigned the council members as liaisons to all city neighborhood associations.

Those efforts are laudable, Wentink said, but still come up short of what the League would want.

“At this point I’m definitely committed to districts as the best way to bring representation to the entire city,” she said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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