5 Years After Lawsuit, Votes Of Latinx Residents Are At Issue In Yakima Government Change Debate

Yakima city council
The current Yakima city council is considering putting forth to voters a change in city government to do away with a city manager in favor of an elected a mayor elected city wide. Currently the mayor – Kathy Coffey (center, bottom row) – is chosen from within the elected city council, which is broken down by geographic district. Courtesy of Yakima City Council

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Tuesday, Nov. 5 is election day, but the city of Yakima is debating what might go on its next ballot in 2020. Council members are considering a proposal to put the establishment of a mayoral position to a vote. The Yakima mayor would replace the city manager’s position and be elected by the city at-large. 

But opponents say at-large elections in Yakima would suppress Latinx votes. 

In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sued the city of Yakima for violating the Voting Rights Act — and won. At issue were city council seats that represented city districts but were voted on at-large.

“That in and of itself isn’t always a problematic election system,” ACLU attorney Breanne Schuster said.

The problem with that system was that white voters are a slight majority over Latinx voters in Yakima, and both groups vote cohesively and often on opposite sides of the aisle, giving white voters an unfair advantage, Schuster said. The proposed change would disenfranchise Latinx voters again, she said.

If Washington voters don't mail in ballots, they can return them in person to drop boxes like this one at the Yakima County Elections Office. CREDIT: ESMY JIMENEZ/NWPB

In 2011, Yakima voters rejected the idea of a city-wide elected mayor, choosing a city manager-council form of government instead. The city council is considering whether to put the idea to voters again in 2020. CREDIT: Esmy Jimenez/NWPB

“Whether it’s a city council position or it’s a different city-wide position it retains all those same issues because it’s being elected city-wide with all these other factors that are contributing to Latinx voters not being able to have an equal say in that type of election system,” Shuster said.

In a letter to the city council last month, Shuster wrote the ACLU is “prepared to ensure that Yakima complies” with the court’s ruling.

But proponents say voters should have a say in who administers their city. Yakima Valley Business Times publisher Bruce Smith said the city manager is not accountable to the people of Yakima and holds too much power.

“We don’t have a single elected person in this city who is politically answerable to the entire city,” Smith said. “They’re all politically answerable to their districts. A number of us believe it needs to be balanced off with an elected mayor who does have that city-wide political obligation.”

The proposal is also backed by Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita and former mayor Dave Edler. In 2011, Yakima voters rejected a similar change, which would replace the current city manager position with the mayor. 

The City Council will discuss the proposal further at a regular meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 5 beginning at 5:30 p.m. 

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