Gavel (standing image)

The American Civil Liberties Union says switching to an at-large mayor position in Yakima would violate a 2014 federal court ruling.

The ACLU sued the city of Yakima in 2012, alleging that the council’s “at large,” or citywide, council election system disenfranchised Latino voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act. A federal court in 2014 agreed. The city’s seven-district system was the result.

Council members voted 3-2 last week to discuss switching to a mayor-council form of government, sometimes called a “strong mayor” or “elected mayor” system. Under a change, the mayor would manage the city’s day-to-day operations instead of a city manager.

A council discussion Nov. 5 will focus on whether to put the question to voters in February.

Yakima Valley Business Times Publisher Bruce Smith, Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita and former mayor Dave Edler brought the proposal to the council.

Councilwomen Dulce Gutierrez and Kay Funk, who opposed the motion, said they worried that the charter changes, which would entail a citywide election to choose the mayor, would open the city to more litigation. Funk said she would contact the ACLU to ask if they planned to sue.

ACLU Staff Attorney Breanne Schuster, in a Tuesday letter to council, didn’t say outright that the organization planned to sue. But she did say the ACLU is “prepared to ensure” that Yakima complies with the federal court’s injunction from the Montes lawsuit.

Schuster noted the Voting Rights Act lawsuit determined that any at large election had disenfranchised Latino voters by diluting the Latino vote. She said those guidelines apply to any at large seat, whether that be for a City Council member or for a mayor.

Schuster said the charter changes would make the city liable once more to costly litigation. She also said there is no evidence Yakima residents actually want a strong-mayor system. They shot down a similar proposal in 2011, and no petition has surfaced to add the issue to a ballot through the state’s permitted initiative process in the eight years since, she noted.

“It is unclear why the City Council is considering such a monumental and costly charter change to the ballot now, let alone rushing it through the political process with minimal legal analysis or constituency engagement,” she wrote. “The city should put a mayor-council proposal on pause to allow for a comprehensive legal analysis and meaningful community engagement or reject the proposal outright.”

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.