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City Council explores ward voting

In 1960, the city adopted the council-manager form of government we have today, with a seven-member, at-large City Council that represents the citizens and a City Manager who administers the day-to-day operations of the city.

In 2016, the City Council unanimously voted to explore electing some or all members from wards. Council Member Barbara Clark opposes establishing wards, and Council Member Tom Scribner is in favor of establishing wards. They share their viewpoints below.

At-large voting – Voters elect council members to serve the population of the city as a whole. According to the National League of Cities (NLC), an organization that advocates for more than 19,000 cities, at-large election proponents favor this method because:

  • Council members can be more impartial and concern themselves with the problems of the whole community instead of those of a single district.
  • Vote trading may be minimized.
  • The candidate pool may be larger, resulting in better-qualified Council members.

Ward voting – Those who live in a particular area may vote for candidates that represent that area. Ward, or district, elections give minority groups a better chance of representation. Several court decisions have forced jurisdictions to switch from at-large elections to ward elections, mostly to increase representation of minority groups. According to the NLC, ward voting proponents favor this method because:

  • Council members may be more sensitive to problems that affect smaller areas.
  • Council members who represent a specific district may encourage more citizen participation in government and elections.


Against Wards

By Council Member Barbara Clark

I think almost everyone wants the city council to be representative of the full diversity of our residents in Walla Walla.  Our existing system of city-wide eligibility for council positions does a good job of providing that, and there appears no reason to believe that replacing it with a ward system would be an improvement.


Our existing system has worked well.

The current election system has produced councils that have actually been quite representative of our general population.

In the almost 20 years I've been on the council, we've had a good economic and occupational mix of members.  Many of those members would be considered middle-class, quite a few were low income, and one, I believe, was wealthy. Throughout that time the vast majority of council members have been actively employed. 

During the same 20 years, the majority of members have been of European heritage while three have been Latino.  For context, U.S. Census figures for Walla Walla County show Latinos as 2 percent of the population in 1970, 5.4 percent in 1980, 9.7 percent in 1990, 17.4 percent in 2000, and 19.7 percent in 2010.  Two of the Latinos on the council defeated Anglo opponents in their election bids, and the third ran unopposed.  One Latino member was elected by the council as Mayor, and another was elected Mayor Pro-Tem. In 1993, one member of the council was black.  This council history clearly demonstrates Walla Walla’s willingness under the current system to vote for people of diverse income levels, employment status, age, race, and ethnicity. 


Only 25 of the 281 cities in Washington have ward elections.

In very large cities, election by wards makes sense, because introducing oneself to tens or hundreds of thousands of voters requires expenditures of time and money that make running for office unrealistic for most people. In the biggest cities in our state, the wards are larger than the entire population of Walla Walla.  Each ward in Seattle has a population of about 95,000.  In Spokane it’s 71,000, and in Tacoma it’s 40,000.  Walla Walla is small enough for candidates to knock on every door if they want to.  They can make themselves known to the public at no cost by participating in candidate forums and through letters to the editor and social media. Walla Walla history also shows that candidates who spend the most money don’t necessarily win, since we’re likely to either know candidates personally or know someone who does.


The proposed ward system will not result in greater economic, ethnic, age, or gender diversity.

While the proposed ward system might result in greater geographic diversity than we’ve sometimes had among council members, none of the proposed wards are homogeneous as to income, employment, age, color, cultural heritage, or political orientation, and that means we cannot expect election by wards to assure these more important kinds of diversity on the council. 

For example, those who believe a ward system would assure greater Latino representation on the council might find it interesting to note that of the eight candidates running for council seats this year,  neither of the two Latino candidates resides in the proposed Northwest Ward, while the candidate who does live there is Anglo.

The only consistently under-represented group on the council has been women, who make up half the population of the city.  Although two women have served as Mayor in the last 30 years, and I’m glad to have been one of them, women have never held more than two seats on the council at any one time, and more often only one or none.  Wards wouldn’t fix that.

An election system known as ranked-choice voting is specifically designed—as wards are not—to increase the voice of minority opinions and groups, but it isn’t available in Washington State.


Whom we elect is important to the whole community.

My votes tend to go to candidates who are thoughtful, care about the community, and try to contribute to the well-being of us all.  I want representatives who work respectfully with others and who will spend the time and effort necessary to make good decisions for everyone who lives and works here, not just for themselves or their own ward.  Without evidence of unfairness or dysfunction in our current system, it concerns me to think we might change to an election system that would give an advantage to someone simply because of their home address.

My hope is that people who care about the city and its present and future residents will participate in both neighborhood and community-wide projects and organizations, and that they'll encourage others with a positive vision to join them.  I think that's the best source of good and representative council members.

For wards

 By Council Member Tom Scribner

"If you are not at the table, you are on the menu."

Someone more clever than I first said the above. But I agree with the sentiment. Which is why I think electing council members from wards is a good idea. Walla Walla is not a homogenous community. There are distinctly different parts of town composed of different socioeconomic classes, different ethnic and racial groups, and different priorities and interests. All of these different groups, classes and priorities are not always – sometimes not at all – at the council table. They should be. Or at least we should do all we can to increase the opportunity for them to be so.

The primary reason for election of council members by ward is to increase diversity on council. We (speaking of all Walla Wallans collectively) are diverse. We have a large Hispanic population; we have wealthy people in some parts of town; we have blue-collar and low-income people in other parts of town; we have homeless people and people who think it is – or should be – our mission to assist the homeless; we have people who want the homeless out of town; and we have young people and families and retired people and senior citizens. And all of these groups, and many more, are not uniformly distributed throughout town. Different parts of town are empirically, visually, socially, and economically different.

And here's the thing: Historically, not all of these different groups and parts of town have been equally – if at all – represented on council. Don't believe this? Look at the present city council. All seven of us are white, old, and retired, and three of us live in the same precinct. (There are 26 precincts in Walla Walla.) We are not a very diverse group. We are not very representative of our entire community. And we are kidding ourselves if we claim to understand, think for, and represent all groups and parts of town. We do not, and we cannot.

So if diversity on council is of value, if we want to increase representation of that diversity, if we want more groups and points of view at the council table, then we should do whatever we can within reason to create diversity on council. Election by wards will do that.


The Plan

The motion before council is for four of the seven council positions to be elected from wards. For this purpose, the city will be divided into four wards – with as near as possible an equal number of residents in each ward. (Ward boundaries have not yet been determined.) To be a candidate in a ward, you would need to live in that ward. Per Washington law, if there are three or more candidates for a council position, only residents in that ward would vote in the primary. The top two candidates would then go on to the general election. In the general election, the candidates (regardless of what ward they lived in) would be elected citywide. That is, all Walla Walla residents would vote for all council position candidates in the general election.


The Benefits

Diversity on council. More groups, interests, and parts of town being represented and at the table. An increased buy-in to local government since it will be more representative and responsible. An increased opportunity to be elected with a corresponding increase in interest and involvement in local government. And, at least potentially, the avoidance of a lawsuit filed against the city in federal court.

But not everyone agrees with diversity on council as a goal. It took lawsuits filed in federal court, one against Yakima and one against Pasco, to get those cities, which previously elected all council members at-large, to implement election of council members by ward. Yakima spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorney fees fighting a losing battle. And Pasco, seeing what happened to Yakima, recognized it would lose and, rather than incur the expense of defending against the lawsuit, agreed to change its council election system from at-large to election by wards.

Still, some of my colleagues on council are opposed, some even vehemently. I do not find their reasons for opposing election by wards persuasive. Here is why.


Opposition reason 1: The current at-large system of electing all council members is not broken; no need to fix it.

Who is to say? Seven old, retired, middle to upper-class white people may not constitute a broken system, but if diversity – visible and actual – is a goal, then we are a long way from achieving such.

This was the very argument made, unsuccessfully, by Yakima. That Hispanics could be elected, that historically we have had three or four Hispanics on council, that we could have blue-collar people on council, that different parts of town could be represented is just that: a possibility. It is not, unfortunately, our reality. Moreover, if diversity on council is a goal, to say that the present system of electing council members is not broken is to ignore the obvious, and history.


Opposition reason 2: If we had wards, there would not be enough people in each ward to get people to run for council, or we would not get "the best" candidates.

At a recent candidate forum, the audience members asked candidates about their position on election by wards. One candidate said that if we had four wards, then that would result in each of the four wards having about 8,000 residents. Not enough people, he said, to have candidates for council. Tell that to the 160-plus towns in Washington (out of a total of 281 cities and towns) that have fewer than 8,000 residents – most of them way fewer.

College Place has approximately 9,000 residents and a seven-member council. They have no trouble getting people to run for all seven positions. If Walla Walla goes to wards, we are talking about one candidate from 8,000 residents. Better yet, what about Waitsburg, with 1,230 residents; or Dayton, with 2,555; or Pomeroy, with 1,395? They all have city councils. Are we to say that people in Walla Walla are less interested in being on council, or that our pool of potential candidates is not as good or talented or whatever as in those towns? I think not. On the contrary, if potential candidates in wards felt they had a better chance of being elected, they would be more apt to run. In Yakima, after the federal judge ordered that they change their election system to wards, they saw an increase in the number of council candidates.


Opposition reason 3: If elected from a ward, that council member would not represent the entire city, only his/her ward.

First, see the above comments about the fallacy of thinking that we seven white, retired, old, middle- to upper-class people – three of whom live in the same precinct – can legitimately claim to understand, identify with, and represent the entire town. We can't and don’t.

Second, what is wrong with thinking about a specific part of or group in town that has not been at the council table? For those of you who are proponents of "state's rights" on a federal level, isn't electing council members from wards a "state's rights" issue writ small?

Third, this argument ignores Washington law. Per current law, even if Walla Walla moves to election of council members from a ward, this means that the candidates for that position will have to live in that ward and that the primary election (if there are more than two candidates for the position) will be limited to residents of the ward. At the general election, all council candidates, regardless of what ward they live in, will be elected citywide. Which is exactly the system used to elect our three County Commissioners. They must live in one of three districts in the County, they are initially up for election in a primary limited to voters in that district, and they are then elected countywide at the general election. So even if we have wards, candidates who live in them must still appeal to and be elected (in the general election) citywide.


Opposition reason 4: Ward-based city councils are corrupt.

I have heard one member of council often state that he has lived in cities with wards and that those cities are corrupt. Maybe they are. But corruption in government is not limited to those systems that have wards or districts or a similar method of electing whomever. I am unaware of any studies or articles, and the referenced council Member has cited none that argue or suggest that a ward system is inherently corrupt or corrupting. This unsubstantiated argument, in my opinion, is totally specious.

So there you have it. Do we want more diversity on council, so that more groups, more parts of town, and more interests have a place at the council table? If so, election by wards should help us achieve this goal. If you disagree, if you think that anyone can run for and have an equal chance to be elected to council; if you think that seven white, old, retired middle to upper-middle class people really understand and represent all parts of town, then oppose election by wards. But be prepared to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees if and when a lawsuit is filed against Walla Walla (as lawsuits were filed against Yakima and Pasco). And be content, depending on who you are and where in town you live, to be on the menu, not at the table.




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