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Approval Of Everett Ballot Propositions Would Create City Council Districts

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Everett skyline from Everett Station

Voters in Everett will decide in November if they want their city council split up into districts. Right now, all seats are at-large.

There will be two questions on the ballot. One asks voters to decide if they want to amend the city charter and allow districts in the first place. The second asks voters to choose if they want five geographic districts and two "at-large" seats, or four geographic districts and three "at-large" seats. Voters must answer both questions.

The city has been talking about potentially creating districts for about a decade, but the movement gained traction in the last few years because of the grassroots group Everett Districts Now.

An initial signature gathering campaign did fail in 2017, though Everett Districts Now Chair Megan Dunn says the group was able to spend the last year educating more people about districts and made a second attempt to get the question on the ballot.

Dunn says the main concern from members of her group is a lack of representation for all parts of the city.

Right now, four of the city councilmembers live in the northernmost neighborhoods of Everett. There are no members representing areas such as Casino Road. Dunn says that's a big problem, and it will only be made worse as the city grows to the south. 

The City Council began working with Dunn's group earlier this year and even gathered input from the public through an online survey in order to get a proposition on the fall ballot.

The city offered the two-part question to voters after getting results from a survey. Still, Dunn says her group wants to see a 5-2 split in the council, rather than the 4-3. 

"With four districts you could still have power or control of the issue in one district. So we really want to see structural change so that we can have a better balance on issues that are impacting the city. So we see that change with 5-2," she said.

City Council President Paul Roberts says he wants voters to have a chance to decide how the city should move forward. Nevertheless, he has concerns about creating a 5-2 split.

Roberts says Everett needs to keep a regional focus because it's a manufacturing hub for the state, has the third largest port in Washington and is the county seat for Snohomish County.

He thinks a 4-3 split could be more appropriate because the other option could insulate the city too much.

"Districts inherently turn the discussion around councils inward to leveraging what's going on within the community to one district or another. That's one of the downsides of having a geographic representation. The upside is giving voice to areas that need to have a voice. So there's sort of a 'how do you balance that out?'" Roberts said.

He also points to overall voter engagement in the city and notes voter turnout in some parts of Everett is consistently at 10 percent. Roberts says five geographic districts would mean roughly 22,000 people per district, which could lead to only a few people making a decision for the many. 

And he says the argument that creating a seat at the table through districting doesn't necessarily play out the way people hope.

"People who are otherwise not engaged in their community don't magically become engaged because there are district boundaries," Roberts said. "I don't think there's real strong evidence to support that in relation to the very strong evidence to support that areas that have higher socioeconomic characteristics have higher voter turnout, and the converse is true for lower socioeconomic characteristics."

He says that voting pattern shows up at the state and national level as well. 

Dunn pushes back on that argument, and explains she has heard from people willing to run for city council.

"We really reject that idea to imply that there aren't qualified candidates to run in the south. Just because someone has a different background than you, a different educational level, that doesn't mean they're not qualified," Dunn said. "There are PTA leaders in this area. There are moms that are active... we see leadership. It may not be the same leadership that the council members are used to."

If the ballot measures are approved, the city would create a districting commission to come up with a plan. There are state rules in place for that process. The first election would take place in 2021. 

Ariel first entered a public radio newsroom in 2004 while in school at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. It was love at first sight. After graduating from Bradley, she went on to earn a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Ariel has lived in Indiana, Ohio and Alaska reporting on everything from salmon spawning to policy issues concerning education. She's been a host, a manager and now rides shotgun with Kirsten Kendrick as the Morning Edition producer at KNKX.