Yakima City Council Tempers Run Hot Over Possible Strong Mayor
At the October 15, 2019 Yakima City Council meeting things got a little heated over the subject of a possible citywide vote to change Yakima's form of government from the current Council-Manager form to a Council-Elected Mayor (or Strong Mayor) form of government.
By a vote of 3 to 2, with council members Carmen Mendez and Brad Hill absent, the council agreed to put the matter on the agenda for the November 5th meeting.
This didn't sit well with District #2 representative Dulce Gutierrez. You can watch the bad behavior here unfold starting at about 1 hour and 3 minutes into the video. "It ain't pretty" as they say. Insulting, disrespectful, rude are accurate descriptors.
So what drove the outburst that led Mayor Kathy Coffey to gavel down Gutierrez not once but twice for being "out of order"?
Councilwoman Gutierrez is of the opinion that a citywide elected mayor would dilute the Latino vote. (and thus influence?) Does she really believe that? She didn't explain how it would. She simply referenced the 2015 Federal Judge's decision that ruled Yakima's At-Large voting districts diluted (suffocated) the effectiveness of the Latino vote**)see below)
Gutierrez was basically saying "it's more of the same as before" adding that cost the previous ACLU fight cost the city 3-million in legal fees. To those suggestion the change, It's not at all the same as before to which I agree. Judge Rice's decision led to the formation of the current seven districts and district only voting for selecting city council members. The idea being to maximize the possibility of Latinos being elected from specific districts to serve on council. And it worked, until it didn't two years later.
SO what constitutes a loss of Latino vote or effectiveness? Under the current system, the city manager is susceptible to pressure from outspoken or aggressive council members because it is the council that hires and can fire the city manager. The potential is there for a council member to push the manager in a certain direction by "reminding" the manager that they just need to secure three more votes and the manager is gone without cause or recourse. Has that happened? Ask around city hall.
The strong mayor system removes that potential influence since it's the vote of the people that hires and fires the manager. Is that the feared Latino loss of influence or dilution that councilwoman Gutierrez refers to? If not that how is the vote diluted? Explain to the community just how an elected mayor dilutes Latino representation. Let's start with that.
Gutierrez then doubled down saying that Yakima and the current council didn't want to desegregate the city. She said 16th Avenue divides the city "like day and night." She pressed for the council to look into housing policies and zoning as a way to direct more affordable housing to be built in West Yakima. That sounds great but it may be counter productive to what she really wants.
In order to prove a voter dilution case, the following three "Gingles" factors must be shown.
In Thornburg v. Gingles (1986), the Supreme Court used the term "vote dilution through submergence" to describe claims that a jurisdiction's use of an at-large/multimember election system or gerrymandered redistricting plan diluted minority votes, and it established a legal framework for assessing such claims under Section 2 Under the Gingles test, plaintiffs must show the existence of three preconditions:
- The racial or language minority group "is sufficiently numerous and compact to form a majority in a single-member district";
- The minority group is "politically cohesive" (meaning its members tend to vote similarly); and
- The "majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it ... usually to defeat the minority's preferred candidate."
If councilwoman Gutierrez is successful in moving Latino families west, which is perfectly fine if affordable housing is available and families are interested in moving, but in the process she may be undoing Gingles test #1. If and when Latino families move out of districts 1 and 2, and head west, the demographic mix won't be "sufficiently numerous and compact to form a majority in a single-member district". That means the advantage Latino candidates have now would be gone. In a fully segregated community, the distribution of Latinos and Caucasians would be even and federal law wouldn't provide any special districts. All candidates would have to stand or fall based on their own merits in an evenly mixed district wide election. And that would be fair.
For now, the discussion of a strong Mayor vote will be on the agenda for November and the conversation about desegregating Yakima will continue.
Here's a bit History on the road to undiluted Latino voting in Yakima.
Given the distribution of Latinos throughout the community in 2015 when the new system was established, demographers had to sacrifice "electoral equality" in order create Yakima's Minority/Majority districts 1 & 2.
That means in order to draw lines to form two districts that had more Latinos than Caucasians voters, the total number of voters in those Minority/Majority districts are significantly fewer than in districts farther west. In 2015's General Election the total number of votes cast in each district is quite revealing:
District Totals in 2015
That means a Latino candidate in district one or two would need only 250 to 300 votes to win. A candidate in district six or seven would need 1,200 to 1,800 votes to win. That's is a unfair deviation in fairness by every federal measure EXCEPT that it's what the judge said had to be done. Judicial gerrymandering. It costs more for a candidate to campaign, takes more time to campaign, and the vote of a council member of district 6 or 7 carries five, six or seven times the population weight of district 1 or 2 but the vote doesn't count any differently at the council. Basic fairness has been traded forwhat has proven to be limited minority participation. But that's the world we live in.
(**To this day I disagree.) The actual county voting records don't show any systematic or even sporadic diluting of Latino votes. What they do show is an almost complete lack of participation in the process by Latino candidates and a comparable lack of participation by actual and potential Latino voters. In my opinion the judge reached a conclusion on theory, not on fact. But that's just me.