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What's in a name?

Hispanic representation on city council questioned

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Whitman College student Ian Warner calculated the percentage of Hispanic popluation-and percentage represnted on the council-in Yakima County cities based on last names in the phone directory.

Whitman College student Ian Warner let his fingers do the walking through the Sunnyside phone book.

The result is research that he claims shows the city needs to move from an at-large system to a district or precinct form of city council representation.

In conducting the research, Warner calculated the percentage of Hispanic population-and percentage represented on council-in Yakima County cities based on last names in the phone directory.

Warner's research paper, which dates back to November 2005, came to light this past Monday during the Sunnyside City Council meeting when Councilman Paul Garcia asked the city to post it on the city's website.

Garcia, the council's only Hispanic member, said he was contacted during Warner's research and wanted to make sure council and the public had access to the document.

Though Warner contacted him, Garcia said he was never actually interviewed for the project.

"What I would like to have happen is to acknowledge this (report) is out there if we want to have discussions on it at a later time on whether there's anything that needs to be done," Garcia said later.

With that said, Garcia doesn't feel that setting up city council districts will help attract more Hispanic candidates for this community that has a 75 percent Hispanic population.

The key, he said, is for Hispanics to first become voters and then active in some way in there community.

That's how Garcia got involved, first bringing neighborhood concerns over a housing development to the planning commission, then joining the commission before serving on the city council.

Garcia points to what he calls a "vacuum of leadership" in the Sunnyside Hispanic community as one of the causes for why so few run for city council.

But even if they run for council, there's no guarantee Hispanics will be elected. Garcia said Tomas Villanueva's failed State Senate bid is an example.

"Tomas got a lot of the Hispanic vote, but didn't get enough of them to turn out," Garcia observed.

He said the puzzle as to why Hispanics register to vote, but then don't is "the million dollar question". He added, "I don't believe the answer is districts."

There are some possible solutions, he adds, such as hands-on civic government courses for high school students in learning about city councils, planning commissions and other legislative bodies.

Garcia also encouraged a gradual approach, for Hispanics to get involved in the community in areas such as volunteering for city boards or parent/teacher groups.

In more than 30 years in city administration City Manager Bob Stockwell said he has worked with both city-wide elected and district elected councils. He said both representation methods resulted in about the same number of minority council members.

Stockwell also questioned Warner's research methods of determining race by last names in the phone book.

"The way he defines Hispanic is by surname," Stockwell says. "That's not a very accurate representation."

As an example, Stockwell pointed to some of the other communities that Warner says have a more balanced Hispanic representation on city council

"But when you look at who the people actually are, some of them have Spanish surnames but are Anglo or married to someone with a Spanish surname," Stockwell contends.

Sunnyside City Councilman Bruce Epps also took exception to Warner's methods. He said one of his parents is Portuguese, yet his minority status was not represented in the research because Warner looked only at last names.

Though the outcomes and methods of Warner's research don't add up, according to Sunnyside city officials, Stockwell pointed to figures in the study that do show increasing numbers of Hispanic registered voters.

"I think the Hispanic community is evolving and that we will start seeing more (council) representation," said Stockwell. "It will naturally occur, as people are involved in the culture here for a longer period time and acquire the education and economic ability to have time to spend on community involvement."

Whether Hispanic, Anglo, or otherwise, Garcia said it's important for council members to remember they represent all of Sunnyside, not just their ethnic group.

"We may have a 70 percent Hispanic population, but the decisions by the council don't affect just one segment of the population," Garcia observed. "They affect everybody."

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