YAKIMA — Supporters of a proposal to change Yakima’s form of government have tweaked their plan following a city legal review.

The proposal is a collaboration between Yakima Valley Business Times Publisher Bruce Smith, Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita and former Yakima Mayor Dave Edler. The newest version, delivered to the city Thursday, combined elements from the original proposal and some of the suggestions from the city’s legal review.

“We took what we think are the best ideas from both plans and combined them into one,” the three wrote in a memo to the council.

The topic of asking voters to weigh in on a switch to a mayor-council form of government, also known as an elected mayor or strong mayor system, will be discussed at the city council’s next regular meeting Tuesday at city hall. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. and time is set aside for public comment.

If approved by the council, the issue would go to voters in February. Yakima voters turned down a similar proposal in 2011, with 52 percent voting no.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Columbia Legal Services and OneAmerica have voiced concern that the charter changes will disenfranchise Yakima’s Latino voters and would open the city to a lawsuit.

The city spent $3 million in legal fees after the ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2012 contending the city’s at-large election system violated the federal Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising Latino voters. A federal judge agreed, and the city’s current system for electing council members resulted in 2015.

Charter change supporters said the Voting Rights Act lawsuit only applied to council races, not the mayor. Opponents said there are other issues at play.

Proposal changes

Right now, Yakima has a council-manager form of government, with a city manager responsible for daily operations and employees. A switch would place a mayor elected at-large in the position of overseeing daily operations, while the city council would remain as the legislative authority. The change would require voter approval.

Six of the state’s 10 first class cities have a mayor-council form of government, whereas 10 of 25 cities with populations of more than 50,000 also use a mayor-council form, said Ryan Bleek, an assistant city attorney, in an Oct. 24 memo to the council. Bleek noted in the memo that those numbers pan out to about 60 percent of the state’s population being governed by a mayor-council form of government.

The city’s legal department reviewed the proposal and suggested some changes, including that the charter amendments would become effective upon the first swearing in of an elected mayor and that the council president would serve as mayor pro tempore, and what would happen in the event of a tie to fill any council vacancies.

The legal department also advised that the mayor’s salary be set by ordinance, not within the actual charter itself, and that certain staff appointments require council approval. Legal staff also suggested no specific timeline for the first mayoral primary, given that event would depend on council and voter approval of the proposed charter changes.

Smith said major parts of the original proposal remain the same. The mayor will be directly elected and serve for four years, although the first mayor will have a shortened three-year term to sync the position with other municipal elections. The council will elect a council president, but the council’s method of election and districts will remain the same. The mayor will hire a city administrator and also will have veto power that can be overridden by a majority-plus-one vote of the council, Smith said.

The revised proposal will change the way the mayor is paid, as suggested by city staff, and also will require council confirmation of “at least some senior managers” hired by the mayor, Smith said. Supporters revised several of the technical issues recommended by the city’s legal department, Smith said.

Some of the differences between the new version and the city legal draft include how many council members are needed to call a meeting, which appointments require council approval, and whether the mayor or the person’s designee has to attend every council meeting.

Supporters said in the memo they hope the council puts the newest version of their proposal on the February ballot.

Legal questions

Robin Engle, spokeswoman for OneAmerica, and Columbia Legal Services staff attorneys Lori Jordan Isley and Alfredo Gonzalez Benitez voiced concerns that the proposal is happening without a robust community engagement process or a comprehensive review of the city’s charter.

In a Nov. 4 letter to the council, attorneys Isley and Gonzalez Benitez said a strong mayor form of government might work for other cities, but would not work for Yakima. They noted in the Nov. 4 letter that the city of Yakima has a history of voting-related discrimination, racially polarized voting, and discrimination against the Latino community in the areas of education, employment and health. They also said the city has not adequately responded in the past to minority group concerns.

“Latinx communities lack opportunity and experience greater levels of poverty, but the city (Yakima) has not done anything to address that,” Gonzalez Benitez said in a follow-up interview.

Smith said that the 2014 ruling by federal Judge Thomas Rice related specifically to at-large elections specific to city council members. Smith said nothing in Rice’s ruling prohibited at-large elections for other city positions, including an elected mayor.

Disenfranchisement

The city of Yakima’s population is about 46 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Gonzalez Benitez pointed to a decade of research done by Paul Apostolidis, a professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, that highlighted historical barriers to the state’s Latino residents, which Apostolidis said affected voter participation.

Those barriers included that more Latinos lack health insurance coverage than non-Latinos, make up a large percent of the workforce in the state’s most dangerous jobs, face higher levels of poverty, and that more Latino youth face an academic achievement gap than their non-Latino peers.

The ACLU-Washington wrote to the council Oct. 22, asking the council to reject the proposed changes.

The Columbia Legal Services’ letter cited factors it said could present a risk of Voting Rights Act violations, including race-related issues that have erupted in the District 1 city council race, which pit Eliana Macias against Kenton Gartrell. The letter also cited the city’s tepid response to past initiatives advocating for Latino inclusion or benefit, including a 4-3 vote in 2017 that dismissed a welcoming city and inclusive policing initiative that would have prevented local police from questioning individuals about their immigration status and a 4-3 decision in July to allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to continue operating deportation flights out of Yakima’s airport.

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