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Dividing the pie

Sunnyside starts districting process for city council member elections

With a patchwork of precincts projected on a wall beside them, Sunnyside City Council members last night began the process of piecing together four districts for future council elections.

Wednesday night's council workshop was a year in the making and included officials from Yakima County, who will help implement the four districts for city council seats. The other three council positions will be at-large seats.

The districting issue came up because of a college report identifying Sunnyside's seven current at-large council seats as a hindrance to electing Hispanics. Though the report was done based on names in the Sunnyside phone book, rather than a true survey, the Department of Justice has weighed in, instructing the city to proceed with districts.

Sunnyside Mayor Paul Garcia said last night that he'd like to see a draft of the districting plan ready by this October. Council will hold at least one public hearing to gain comment on the issue before reaching a final decision.

The city has until May 1, 2009 to have the voting districts drawn up and submitted to the county in order for them to be on the primary and election ballots later that year. That's according to County Auditor Corky Mattingly, who also noted that only voters within each district can vote for those respective candidates in the primary but that all Sunnyside voters will decide on the four districted candidates in the general election.

Mike Martian is the county's director of geographic information systems (GIS) and drew up for council an overhead display of how the four districts could potentially be divided. The idea, he said, is to maintain district boundaries along current precinct lines or other landmarks, such as roads.

One district diagrammed last night would include an area approximately west of south Sixth Street to Swan Road. Other district boundaries discussed last night would approximately cover areas north and east of Yakima Valley Highway, a portion of the city east of Sixth Street and west of Yakima Valley Highway, as well as a district area South of Lincoln Avenue.

However, Martian's preliminary district boundary suggestions are based on the 2000 census and do not include new housing developments, such as the Aho and Sunset Heights projects.

Martian added those boundaries could change when current population figures are included. Sunnyside's population now is just over 15,000, and interim City Manager Mark Kunkler told council he could have up to date figures in about a month showing the city's population and areas of growth within the city limits.

When the discussion turned towards the percentage of Hispanics in each of the districts, Councilwoman Theresa Hancock reminded her colleagues that the districting process is to be "color blind" and focus on distributing the total population as equally as possible within the four districts, and not basing the district boundaries on race.

The city's plan is to have all four of its open seats in the 2009 general election be apportioned to specific districts. That means some current council members either will not be able to run for re-election, or may have to oppose each other if they reside in the same district.

"It will be an interesting election," said Kunkler.

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