If you were disappointed there wasn’t a proposal on this month’s ballot to switch Everett’s city council from at-large seats to districts, you may have two to choose from next November.
Organizers with Everett Districts Now, who failed to collect enough signatures to put its districts proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot, have continued their initiative campaign and now hope to put their plan on next year’s general election ballot.
But while losing the battle this year for a ballot initiative, Everett Districts Now may have won the war in helping to sway opinion on the Everett City Council to give new consideration to a switch to districts.
City council member Paul Roberts is asking the council to consider formation of a committee that would consider district representation with the intention of placing a measure on next November’s ballot to make the switch. The decision on establishing the committee could come up for a council vote as early as Nov. 29 or Dec. 6.
The goal behind the switch is to increase voter registration and ballot participation throughout the city, encourage greater participation among the public in city government and better represent neighborhoods and residents who may feel disenfranchised.
Voter turnout could use some help.
Despite a high-profile mayoral race and three city council races that attracted three to four candidates, voter turnout for this year’s city council elections in Everett wasn’t particularly impressive, about 32 percent. About 16,500 of the city’s 52,000 registered voters cast ballots in the council races. About 1,000 more voted in the mayoral race.
While the issue has been discussed for years, Everett Districts Now, led by organizers including Megan Dunn and Greg Lineberry, has since 2015 talked with neighborhood groups, worked with a retired University of Washington professor of geography, and urged action at city council meetings to make the change.
Districts Now’s proposal seeks a seven-member council with two at-large positions and five positions represented by a resident of each district, elected by that district’s voters. The effort also has prepared a district map, showing where the boundaries for each district would fall.
Roberts’ proposal would take the process back a few steps before putting a plan on the ballot.
Roberts suggests appointing a nine-member committee that would include individuals with relevant experience and members of the public. Eight members would be nominated by each council member and the mayor, while a ninth member, a “district master,” with background in geographic information systems, population, geography and related issues would facilitate the committee’s work.
Among the issues the committee would wrestle with would be the makeup of the council, how many districts, how many at-large council members and how and where district boundaries would be drawn.
Roberts’ plan suggests the committee’s work be completed no later than May, providing time to put a proposal on the November ballot and giving supporters and opponents the opportunity to debate the issue before voters.
Dunn and Lineberry — during a recent districts discussion on the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County’s “Magazine on the Air,” on KSER (90.7 FM) — said they’ve already made the effort to determine the number of districts and the draw the map and that it’s not necessary to go over that ground again.
But it is.
While Everett Districts Now has developed its proposal with the opportunity for input from residents at neighborhood and other meetings, the process wasn’t the official public process that a significant change in government should complete.
One of the concerns that the editorial board has expressed previously is that a system using five districts will result in districts representing about 20,200 residents each. Considering that there may be some districts with fewer registered voters than others, a district of that size may not offer a large enough pool of qualified candidates to give voters a good range of representative choices.
A system using four districts, with three at-large members, would increase the districts to more than 25,000 residents each. And a system with four district would also mean fewer boundaries with the potential to divide neighborhoods between districts. Four districts also would mean that Everett voters would still be responsible for electing a majority of the council — three from at-large positions and one from their own district.
Of course, the end result of the committee’s process could propose a system that offers no at-large seats at all. Of the seven first-class cities in the state with districts or wards, three — Aberdeen, Bremerton and Spokane — have no at-large positions, while Bellingham, Seattle, Tacoma and Yakima have one to three at-large seats.
The process of drafting a district map itself is one that would seem to require a process that offers opportunity for public consideration and comment.
The discussion about council districts has prompted the council to consider other changes to increase voter and resident participation in city government, including council member assignments to specific neighborhoods, voter registration drives focused in areas of lower participation; opportunities to train future civic leaders and work with organizations in the community; more training on race and economic diversity and outreach to provide a broader representation on the city’s advisory boards and committees.
Regardless of whether the city’s voters eventually adopt a district system for the council, those efforts need to continue. But for voters to have confidence that district representation will give them a greater voice, the city’s residents need a say in how that system is established and designed.