Editorial: Council districts not answer for Everett’s neighborhoods

By The Herald Editorial Board

It’s not the Mason-Dixon line, but for year’s Everett’s 41st Street — which also serves as one of the city’s main thoroughfares leading into and out of town — has been seen as a dividing line between the city’s north and south residents.

In truth, splitting the population equally north and south would move that line farther south of 41st Street. Yet the perception persists. The knowledge that over the years most of those on the Everett City Council have been residents living north of 41st has contributed to a sense that those living south of that busy avenue are not as well represented.

In recent years, some have proposed a change in how city council members are elected, switching from the current at-large elections to council districts. The Herald Editorial Board, since 2012, has either advocated council districts or sought further study.

A proposal to put the issue before city voters was considered last year by the city’s charter review commission, but in November the commission voted 11-3 against a proposal to put the issue on the ballot. Instead, the commission requested further study by the council’s general government subcommittee.

That committee’s review, which included a look at voter data going back to 1981, came to the same conclusion this month: Council districts weren’t the best way to improve representation, as The Herald’s Chris Winters reported Wednesday.

Such districts have worked elsewhere. Yakima, with a population that is 41 percent Latino, elected three Latino women to its council in 2014 for the first time in its history after it adopted council districts, following a lawsuit by the ACLU under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Everett may not share the same history of disenfranchisement as Yakima, but there are neighborhoods with racial and social-economic divisions and geography does play a role. Everett’s racial makeup is about 76 percent white and 24 percent nonwhite with populations of Hispanic, Asian, black and American Indian residents. Lower-income neighborhoods are concentrated in the city’s south as well as areas east of Broadway.

Of the city’s 100,500 residents, 52,000 are registered to vote; another 20,000 to 25,000 are eligible to vote but are not registered. Among the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, voter registration and election participation is lower than for middle class and more affluent neighborhoods.

But voting for council members by district may be ineffective in improving representation and encouraging more participation among residents of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.

Among the potential problems:

Divide the city into five districts of about 20,100 residents, and the risk is that some districts, those with lower numbers of registered voters, will be represented by fewer voters than other districts. The smaller districts could limit the pool of qualified candidates and would also limit the voice of residents by cutting them off from electing all members of the council.

While a candidate’s neighborhood identity and race might serve to attract supporters and generate interest in an election, most voters make their decisions based on a candidate’s stance on issues and her or his character and experience.

Districts could also lead to a parochial attitude on the council, with members more concerned with answering to their individual districts than with the city as a whole.

Adopting district voting doesn’t address other measures the city should undertake to increase voter registration and turnout for elections and participation in all aspects of city government.

At the direction of Council President Judy Tuohy, city council members recently have been assigned as liaisons to two or three specific neighborhoods to improve outreach and communication.

The subcommittee, which includes council members Paul Roberts, Cassie Franklin and Scott Bader, also recommended the city work with organizations such as the county League of Women Voters and NAACP to develop leadership programs that would help prepare potential candidates.

The city also could do more to recruit residents of specific neighborhoods to serve on the city’s more than 20 boards and commissions. There are vacancies now on the city’s animal shelter board, its board of appeals, community housing and development committee, historical commission, human needs advisory committee, salary commission and on its Council of Neighborhoods. For many, these boards and commissions can serve as a training ground for political office, not just with the city but county offices and the Legislature, providing experience and an understanding of issues that impress voters.

Finally, the recent announcement that Mayor Ray Stephanson would not seek re-election after 14 years in office has already drawn the candidacy of three: County Council member Brian Sullivan and city council members Tuohy and Franklin. They and those running this fall for the council should be pressed for details on how they would increase the city’s voter participation and the engagement of all residents.

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