Yakima City Hall file 1.jpg

FILE — The council chamber at Yakima City Hall.

The city of Yakima is being sued — twice — over the City Council’s decision to put a shift to a strong mayor government on February’s ballot.

Yakima voters Marguerite Wright and Leigh Kronsnoble filed separate lawsuits Tuesday in Superior Court for the State of Washington challenging the proposed change. Columbia Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union-Washington, which have spoken against the shift, are supporting the women.

So is the UCLA Voting Rights Project.

Yakima has a council-manager form of government and seven council districts, the result of a federal judge’s ruling in 2014 in a Voting Rights Act lawsuit that found that citywide elections for council positions disenfranchised Latino voters.

A city manager is in charge of the daily affairs of the city, including hiring and firing. The seven city council members are elected by voters within their districts, then appoint one member to serve as the city’s mayor, which is a largely ceremonial role.

Under the proposed shift to a strong mayor form of government council members still would be elected by voters within their districts. There would be no city manager, however.

The mayor, elected in a citywide election, would be responsible for the daily affairs of the city, including hiring and firing employees. The mayor would not have a vote in council matters, which would be presided over by a council president.

The charter change was proposed by Yakima Valley Business Times Publisher Bruce Smith, Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita, and former mayor Dave Edler. They said voters have a right to decide for themselves what form of government they want and that a citywide elected mayor would be accountable to all voters, rather than voters from a specific district. 

The ACLU-Washington sent a strongly-worded letter to the City Council in October, when discussions about the strong mayor proposal became public. OneAmerica and Columbia Legal Services followed with their own letters in November.  The UCLA Voting Rights Project, a program of the university's Latino Policy and Politics Initiative also sent a letter, dated Nov. 5, before filing its lawsuit in December.

Matt Barreto, a professor of political science and Chicano studies and also the faculty director for the Initiative, said the project's faculty, students and legal professionals had carefully considered Yakima's historical and current conditions and shared the other agencies' concerns that the charter changes would violate state and federal law.

"The Council should not proceed to implement the Charter changes that are clearly designed to deprive racial minorities from reasonable voting power recently granted them," Barreto wrote.

He referenced a similar case in Pasadena, Texas, where a federal court ordered the city to receive permission prior to any and all voting changes in the future. Barreto added that the voting rights project would continue to monitor the situation and "proceed as is necessary to prevent any attempts to weaken or dilute the votes" of Yakima citizens.

One of the lawsuits challenges the strong mayor ballot title for not providing “a true and impartial description of the measure's essential contents” and creating prejudice for the measure.

The second complaint alleges that the Washington State Constitution mandates that charter amendments be submitted to the voters in a general election — or November’s general election — and not at a special election like February’s.

Council member Carmen Mendez asked to move the measure to the November 2020 ballot, given that February special elections historically have low general voter turnout as well as low turnout from communities of color. Her motion failed with a 4-3 vote, with only Mendez and Councilwomen Dulce Gutierrez and Kay Funk in favor.

The strong mayor proposal from 2011 also was pitched during a February special election but failed, with 52% voting no.

Both lawsuits request the court to expedite hearings on the challenges, staff from Columbia Legal Services said.

“The ballot measure, proposed originally by private business interests, is effectively a backdoor effort to weaken the voices of Latinx community,” Columbia Legal Services attorneys said. “A Strong Mayor system reduces the political power of the Latinx community in Yakima by reverting to a city-wide system and will concentrate power at the top, weakening the City Council which only switched to incorporating district elections after years-long legal challenges.”

Proponents of the shift have said the changes would not fly in the face of the Voting Rights Act ruling from 2014, given that council members still will be elected in district-specific elections, and that an elected mayor could better serve the city than a city manager.

"The citizens of Yakima have a right to decide who runs City Hall on a day-to-day basis. They have a right to have at least one person in City government who is responsible to the entire city, not to just one district," Smith said. "They should not be denied that right."

Smith said Monday evening that he had not had enough time to completely analyze the complaints, but enough time to know that the lawsuits aren't a challenge to the core issue of the charter change.

Smith said the core issue is whether the city can replace its city manager with an elected mayor. By contrast, Smith said the lawsuits challenge two technical issues with the proposal: when the election can be held and what needs to be in the ballot title. 

"No one is challenging the city's right to put the strong mayor question before voters, which is a good thing," Smith said. "We modeled our charter change after the 2011 strong mayor charter change, which was developed by the City of Yakima's legal staff. The two are very similar."

Smith noted that both were put to the ballot by the city council in February and used almost identical ballot titles. 

"We're not sure why that was legal in 2011, but is suddenly not legal in 2019," Smith said.  "We intend to put the proposal before voters in February or as soon after that as we possibly can."

Randy Beehler, spokesman for the city of Yakima, said the city's policy does not allow for comment on pending litigation.

"The City just received the lawsuit this afternoon," Beehler said. "The City’s Legal Department will review the lawsuit and provide the City Council with an analysis of it."

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

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