City Council moves to adopt five-and-two voting system

Illustration provided Demographer Bill Cooper divided Wenatchee into hypothetical districts. This map is based on a system comprised of five districts with two at-large seats.

WENATCHEE — City Council on Thursday decided to switch to a system of electing five council members by district and two citywide.

Currently, all council members serve at-large. The new ordinance is expected to go into effect in about a month.

"I think it's a good balance," Councilman Keith Huffaker said. "Not everybody is going to get along with whoever is representing their district, so the two at-large gives you somebody else to reach out to if you have a problem with the person who's representing you."

Council members will be able to serve out their terms in the districts they lived in when they were elected. If multiple council members live in a district, those with the shortest unexpired terms would be assigned to vacant districts.

Only Councilwoman Ruth Esparza, the sole Latina on the council, voted against the ordinance. She had proposed a three-district system that would allow for the addition of more districts if it worked.

"I really do hope it works, but if it doesn't, then what do we do? What do we do then?" she asked. "I know that some folks may say, ‘Well, we'll look at this and evaluate later.' But if it doesn't work, I don't know that we can bring us back to at-large. So, that's a concern. I would like to tip-toe my way into districting and not just dive in."

City Council had appointed a committee to study district voting. In June 2016, the committee suggested that council members should be chosen by district instead of citywide.

Most committee members recommended a seven-district format, saying it would be the most legally defensible system, and the rest suggested five districts with two at-large positions.

This followed a 2015 federal court ruling that all seven council members in the city of Yakima be elected by voters from their respective districts instead of citywide. The idea was to give Latinos a better chance of winning, as voters had never elected a Latino council member.

Latinos make up almost 46 percent of Yakima's population and about 32 percent of Wenatchee's. Esparza is the second Latina council member to serve in Wenatchee.

Esparza said she believes diversity and differences in opinion are valuable on the council.

"It creates a more healthy discussion, a more fruitful discussion," she said. "However, I also think it's not healthy to have a community divided, and I don't think it's healthy to weaken one group to strengthen another. I think if we rise, we rise together. I think that's a better way to build bridges, and I just don't think that the seven or five districts encourages that."

Jim Bailey said this has been the most difficult decision he's made in his time on the council.

"From the very beginning, I've had a lot of conflicting emotions and thoughts about this thing," he said. "I'm kind of going, ‘On this hand, but then on the other hand.' I've run out of hands."

Thursday's decision followed a July 12 public hearing in which 12 people addressed the council on the issue. Six were in favor of districts and six were not.

The issue has also been debated in letters to the editor and guest columns.

Those supporting districts have said they would offer better representation of different neighborhoods and the issues they face, and would allow for more variety in perspectives.

Opponents have said districts would destroy the city's sense of unity and allow special-interest groups to take over, and that council members might focus on their district rather than the city as a whole.

Bridget Mire: 665-1179