Prior to a federal court ruling in 2014 that resulted in Yakima’s seven-district voting system, the city had never had an elected Latino serve on the City Council.

By 2015, the council had three Latinas: Avina Gutierrez, Dulce Gutierrez and Carmen Mendez.

With the new voting system barely past two election cycles, voters will decide in February whether they want to switch to a new form of city government.

Under a proposal from Yakima Valley Business Times Publisher Bruce Smith, Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita, and former Mayor Dave Edler, a mayor would be directly elected in a citywide election and would handle day-to-day affairs and the hiring and firing of employees, including a city administrator. The council would still be elected by district.

Those opposing the strong mayor proposal say the charter changes will set the city back to how political conditions were for Latinos prior to a lawsuit filed in 2012 by the American Civil Liberties Union, in which U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice ruled that citywide elections for council positions didn’t provide Latino voters with proportional chances of representation.

Those in favor of the shift say that a citywide elected mayor would be accountable to all voters, including Latinos.

The ACLU sent a strongly worded letter to the Yakima City Council in October, as soon as discussions of the possible shift to a mayor-council government became public. Letters from local groups such as OneAmerica and Columbia Legal Services followed, voicing concerns that any at-large election would again disenfranchise the city’s Latino voters, many of whom feel they live in a city climate already unresponsive to their concerns.

Proponents say the Voting Rights Act lawsuit only applied to the council positions, and that system won’t change. Voters would still elect their district representatives, but they also would have an extra vote — for the mayor, who will be running the daily affairs of the city — so there will be more accountability. Right now, a city manager runs the city’s day-to-day operations.

Rogelio Montes, the plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, and Nick Marquez, who campaigned against the strong mayor proposal when it was first pitched to voters in 2011 — with 52% voting no — shared a recap of the case and their thoughts on what a new form of government might mean for the city’s Latinos, as did former mayors Micah Cawley and Dave Edler.

Political climate

Sonia Rodriguez True, who was appointed to the council in 2008 and became the first Latina to serve, didn’t keep the seat in the 2009 general election, when she received about 48% of the vote compared to Dave Ettl’s 52%.

Rogelio Montes, the plaintiff in the lawsuit of Montes vs. city of Yakima that resulted in the city’s district system, ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 2011. Expert testimony provided by the University of Washington’s Luis Ricardo Fraga in 2013 as part of the case file argued the defeat of Montes and Rodriguez True, as well as Ben Soria in 2009, reflected that “even the most viable Latino candidates have been unable to win election to the Yakima City Council.”

Montes said he filed his lawsuit to give Latinos a fair shot at representation.

“The lawsuit wasn’t filed just to accumulate charges to the city,” Montes said, referring to the the $3 million in legal fees the city ended up paying. “I believe that the old system did not allow all voters equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. The way the old system was, we had not been able to advance through the elections.”

Montes said that prior to the ruling, he didn’t feel welcome at council meetings. Translation services weren’t available then as they are now, and he said certain council members disregarded members of the public who could not speak English. He feels like the situation for the city’s Latino voters has improved “some” since the redistricting happened, and Latinos have served on council.

“The city now provides translating services to anyone attending council meetings needing Spanish translation or addressing council members,” he said. “There is more Latino participation at the council meetings and getting involved in issues that affect them directly.”

Lawsuit repercussions

The ACLU-Washington noted that prior to the ruling, no Latino had ever been elected to the Yakima City Council in the 37 years of the at-large election system, despite the fact that Latinos accounted for approximately one-third of the city’s voting-age population, with the ruling noting that about 23% of eligible voters in Yakima at the time were Latino.

But in the 2015 election, the year of the redistricting, a record number of eight Latinos ran for council positions.

Marquez, who debated the strong mayor proposal in 2010 and also rallied for Yakima to drop its legal battle with the ACLU lawsuit, said he became involved because he felt the city’s previous system, with four district-specific positions and three at-large elected positions, was weighted toward west-side voters.

“A majority of voters picks those at-large positions,” he said. “When you already have three members elected at large, you would only need one district representative to move an issue forward, and that didn’t seem right.”

Former Mayor Micah Cawley said Judge Rice gave the city of Yakima the first chance to submit a map of new districts. The city wanted to use a proportional voting system for two seats on the council, which would be elected at-large, while the other five positions would have been district-specific. City residents then would have been able to cast one vote in their district and, in a separate race, also get to cast one vote with the two at-large seats.

“The effect is every Yakima voter could influence three seats in our council,” he said. “There would be less disparity of eligible voters among the five larger districts.”

But the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and the judge rejected the proposal, and Cawley said disproportionate districts resulted.

“In Yakima, one district will have 800 voters, while another has 3,500 voters,” Cawley said. “This is a glaring disparity.”

The total number of registered voters by district ranges from District 1 with 3,279 total voters to 9,740 voters in District 6, according to the Yakima County Auditor’s Office.

The judge’s ruling pointed out that Latinos made up roughly 23% of the voting population and to be proportionally represented, they should have a shot at 1.6 seats on the council. The ruling noted that the city’s proposed plan did not remedy the dilution of Latino votes.

Cawley, who decided not to run for reelection after the federal ruling in 2014, said the Voting Rights Act ruling means that every one of Yakima’s voters has only one vote on their council once every four years. The district-exclusive system does not allow for citywide representation, which may be a factor in some of the dysfunction community members see with the current council, he said.

Marquez said it’s not fair to judge the efficacy of redistricting on one elected council, particularly given that current City Council members can’t seem to get along and also were expected to fix the city with severely limited funds. He pointed to big-money projects set in motion by the previous council, including the Sozo Sports Complex and YMCA and Yakima Rotary Aquatics Center.

“The old council set up the new council for failure by hampering their funds,” he said. “If you have new people on the council, there will be some challenges. But you don’t go and risk an election system and another $3 million in an almost certain lawsuit.”

Marquez believes the redistricting in 2015 was a small step in the right direction, particularly given racial disparities that remain in the city. Specifically, he says there’s less money invested in the city’s predominantly Hispanic east-side communities. Despite some visible dysfunction on the City Council, Marquez said shifting to an elected mayor form of government would set the city back.

Former Mayor Dave Edler, who has expressed interest in possibly running for the strong mayor position, disagrees.

“The strong-mayor charter change that is on the February ballot is very similar to the measure many of us proposed in 2010, several years before the Voting Rights Act lawsuit,” Edler said. “We were careful, though, to propose a plan that does not in any way change the composition or the manner in which the Yakima City Council is elected. The mayor is not a member of the council, does not participate in its meetings other than to provide information when asked, and has no vote.”

Cawley said he feels the decision to redistrict hasn’t worked well so far for stability of the city. He was hopeful that an elected mayor might be able to rein in dysfunction between individual council members.

“Hopefully a strong mayor would help the council rally around causes, rather than in-fighting amongst themselves,” he said. “No one is going to push around a strong mayor like they might a city manager.”

Strong mayor impact?

Edler emphasized that the seven-district system will still allow for minority representation in a strong mayor form of government.

“We thought then and continue to believe that Yakima would be better served by an elected mayor who is answerable to the voters,” he said.

But Montes said he’s so sure that a shift to a strong mayor form of government will hurt political conditions for Latinos that he’s taking time to rally and inform community members. At a November council meeting, he presented his district representative, District 2 Councilman Jason White, with a petition with 250 signatures from business owners and community members against the possible strong mayor shift. He’s also actively working with other community members and local organizations to educate the Hispanic community about the pros and cons of the strong mayor system prior to the February election.

“If they had put the topic on the November ballot, it would have given us more time to go out and educate people, and to encourage them to vote,” Montes said. “That time could have helped the community to be informed and to hold people accountable.”

Councilwoman Mendez had proposed moving the question to the November ballot, which the council voted down, 4-3.

Montes said that vote is a good indication of what’s to come for the city’s Latinos.

“Changing to a mayor-council form of government will undermine district representation and may cost taxpayers more money in litigation, while giving more power to special interests and not to the taxpayers themselves,” he said. “There should be concern about rushing this onto the ballot without community input.”

Cawley doesn’t feel additional election cycles will improve the functioning of the city’s council-manager form. He said the city’s former three at-large positions worked to the benefit of residents. As one of the at-large representatives, he said he cared equally about all city residents.

He also doesn’t think the strong mayor form of government is inherently unfair to Latino voters.

“When you doorbelled in different parts of the city, you saw the disparities and challenges citywide, and you remembered,” he said. “I don’t think it would revert us back to an unfair system. Anyone can run for office. I always say getting elected is based on your politics, issues, and ideas, not your race.”

During a meeting Nov. 5, Mendez addressed that issue, saying she makes decisions based on what’s best for the entire community, not just her district or a subset of residents.

Regardless of what voters decide in February, both Montes and Marquez hope that the incoming City Council will make dedicated efforts to engage all city residents.

“There is some challenge in finding leadership that is willing to engage, to reach all parts of the city,” Marquez said. “There has to be an overwhelming commitment to bring people who haven’t been engaged to become involved, to educate them and bring them on board.”

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