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Gartrell, Byers and Lund ahead in Yakima City Council races; Cousens wins 2nd term
 Mai Hoang  / 

Kenton Gartrell, Patricia Byers and Soneya Lund are leading Tuesday’s general election results, putting them in line to join the Yakima City Council.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Holly Cousens, who ended up in an uncontested race, will serve another term.

Cousens and the three newly-elected members will join Brad Hill, Jason White and Kay Funk on the council.

If the current results stick, the Yakima City Council will lack Latino representation for the first time since the city was forced by a federal judge to adopt a district-based system in 2015 in response to a lawsuit over voter disenfranchisement.

The new system paved the way for three Latina candidates — Dulce Gutierrez, Avina Gutierrez (not related) and Carmen Mendez — to be elected later in 2015. Avina Gutierrez ended up losing her seat during the primary when she ran for reelection in 2017. Dulce Gutierrez and Mendez opted to not run for reelection after serving a four-year term.

Dulce Gutierrez, in discussions on a strong mayor proposal during Tuesday’s Yakima City Council, passionately spoke about the continued roadblocks for people of color who want to serve in office, including herself.

“What you guys don’t want to accept is that my contributions and the contributions of people of color are equally important,” she said.

In Position 1, Gartrell was ahead of Eliana Macias with 60% of the votes, or 213 to 142. The seat was previously held by Gutierrez. This race received heightened attention after Gartrell had a run-in with a Macias supporter at a local bar on the night of the primary election.

Macias said she was disappointed at the initial result and hoped the gap would narrow as more votes are counted in the next few days.

If the result does not go her way, her focus will be making sure Gartrell represents the district.

“I will be at the City Council meetings voicing my concerns and holding him accountable,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to see him to vote in ways the district disagrees with.”

Gartrell said he would like to work with Macias.

“I think there are opportunities to work together,” he said. “There are people who had concerns that maybe I didn’t know about or she knows more about.”

He sees no issues as a non-Latino representing a Latino-majority district.

“I’ve always worked with others. I saw people as human first and foremost,” he said. “We all share the same environment, and we’re all human. I don’t see humans as anything less. I see them as equal. No matter where they come from I want to represent them.”

In Position 3, Byers was ahead of Thomas Sund with 59.1% of the votes or 575 to 391. The seat was previously held by Carmen Mendez, who did not seek reelection.

“I think people see I’m a good listener and that I’m committed to my district, that I’m committed to my city,” Byers said.

Sund said he would support Byers should she ultimately be elected and said he felt that she ran a fair campaign.

He does not plan on running for office again.

“I believe completely that the good old boys club and the special interest groups are still running this city,” he said.

In Position 5, Lund was ahead of Liz Hallock with 58.85% of the votes or 642 to 441. The seat was held by Kathy Coffey, who did not seek reelection.

“All I want to do is grow this community,” Lund said. “And celebrate the things we do really well and tackle those issues we need to work on.”

Hallock said she believes there are still plenty of votes to be counted. However, she believes that the result reflects winning the support of a powerful part of the district’s voter base rather than catering to the needs of the whole.

“The problem in Yakima is that Latino voters have been disenfranchised for so long that candidates have to cater to the interests of the more affluent communities, so the poor neighborhoods languish,” she said.

Cousens easily won reelection for her Position 7 seat. She ended up in an uncontested race after opponent Sarah Towell withdrew from the race last month for personal reasons. But Towell’s name remained on the ballot, and Cousens had nearly 75% of the vote, or 1,093 to 347.

“I’m really thankful for their support and belief in me to carry their voice for the next four years in council,” Cousens said.

The council will be tackling several big issues in the next year, including whether to move to a strong mayor form of government, how to handle the search for a new city manager and how to manage a tight budget in 2020.

The council will also address a long list of priorities — maintaining pools and community centers, improving streets, tackling homelessness, increasing affordable housing, and downtown redevelopment.

Council members also likely will continue to discuss flights chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement transporting undocumented individuals into and out of the Yakima Air Terminal at McAllister Field, which started in May.

And the council must continue to navigate personal differences, which often lead to heated arguments during meetings.

Council members serve four-year terms. They receive $1,075 per month for their service.

Council to keep talking about strong mayor proposal
 joannamarkell  / 

The Yakima City Council will keep talking about a proposal to change the city’s government structure when it meets again on Nov. 19.

The council voted 4-3 on Tuesday to continue discussions about a switch to a council-mayor form of government at a meeting later this month. The vote followed about two hours of passionate public comment and council debate on the topic.

Council members Kathy Coffey, Holly Cousens, Brad Hill and Jason White voted in favor of moving the discussion to

Nov. 19. Dulce Gutierrez, Kay Funk and Carmen Mendez voted no.

Right now, the city has a council-

manager form of government, in which a city manager runs day-to-day operations. The proposal would replace Yakima’s city manager with a mayor elected at large as the chief executive.

Yakima Valley Business Times Publisher Bruce Smith, Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita and former Mayor Dave Edler put forward the switch to an “elected mayor” system, sometimes also called a “strong mayor” system. Their proposal would put the issue to a vote in a February special election.

More than 25 people spoke on both sides of the issue.

The proposal drew concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union, OneAmerica and Columbia Legal Services, which sent letters raising concerns that an at-large mayor position could trigger new civil rights litigation. Representatives of the city’s Community Integration Committee also spoke against a change.

Opponents say the proposal puts the city at risk of violating a 2014 court ruling in Montes vs. City of Yakima that found Yakima’s at-large voting system violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

Alfredo Gonzalez Benitez, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, urged the council to reject the charter changes, which he described as a “backdoor effort to weaken the voices of the Latinx community in the decision of who will lead the city.” He said a change could open the city to costly litigation.

“When we erode the opportunities for some voters, we diminish the power of everyone,” he said. “While a strong mayor form of government might be OK in other cities, Yakima is not other communities. Yakima has a history of Voting Rights Act discrimination.”

Proponents said the court order applied only to City Council races.

Community member Jerry Mellon, who said he wasn’t for or against a strong mayor, said he was bothered that the city might make decisions based on a threat of a lawsuit by the ACLU.

Former Yakima City Councilwoman Maureen Atkinson, who served two terms on the council, said she campaigned against a charter change last time it came up in 2011 but supports it now.

“I do understand the value of district-only representation, but we also need elected leadership that’s useful to the city as a whole. A strong mayor implements the policies adopted by a very strong City Council,” she said. “I hope you’ll let the voters decide this important issue.”

She said waiting until Nov. 19 will give people more time to review changes to the charter suggested by the city’s legal department. She said supporters are working on a “new and better” charter amendment.

Voters rejected a switch in 2011, with 52% voting no.

Mendez said the council is going against voters’ will by bringing the issue up again, and if supporters want the issue on the ballot, they can collect signatures on their own.

“At this council, I’ve made decisions for every single community resident. I don’t make decisions based on what’s the best interest of my district,” she said. “To say we need someone who is going to represent all of us, I will tell you every single decision I’m making is for all of us.”

Gutierrez spoke about her own experiences on the campaign trail, saying she encountered racism as she went door-to-door in her neighborhood.

“They told me to go back to Mexico and critiqued me based on stereotypes of other Latinos they knew or thought they had an understanding of,” she said. “I don’t believe any of my colleagues were told to go to a country they weren’t from. And yet, we persisted.”

She said that four years later, after the dust had settled on the district system, the council wants to change the rules. She said the Montes case wasn’t an ACLU lawsuit, but a Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

“I understand it’s probably a little bit uncomfortable to have to share power with people of color. To share power with poor people. To share power with renters. To share power with people in their 20s, but I’m here and I’ve done good work for four years,” she said.

Funk also said it would be better for supporters to collect signatures than for the council to place the issue on the ballot. “We might still get sued, but we’d be vastly less vulnerable.”

The Montes lawsuit cost the city of Yakima $3 million in legal fees.

Cousens said she thinks the council needs time to review both versions of the charter change to ensure there’s a polished version. Slowing down the process also gives the public another chance to comment on the matter, she said.

Council members Hill, White and Coffey didn’t speak to the issue before voting.