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Low turnout for Sunnyside redistricting open house

With county and city officials outnumbering the general public by a three-to-one margin, the city of Sunnyside held a re-districting open house last night.

Thursday night's get-together was held in the Sunnyside High School library and about a half-dozen members of the Sunnyside community attended.

Among the few visitors to the open house was Rafaela Sanchez of Sunnyside. Speaking through an interpreter, Sanchez said she was there to learn about the districting process.

Sanchez said there is a lack of information in the Hispanic community about city government and meetings. She said she would take the information gathered last night and "pass it along to others."

She expressed concern about last night's low turnout, "It's really important that people come to these meetings."

Mayor pro tem Jim Restucci said there could have been several factors that kept people away. He said the districting process, which sets aside four of Sunnyside's seven council seats into geographical districts within the city limits, is straightforward.

One proposed district boundary would include an area approximately west of South Sixth Street to Swan Road. Other district lines 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.

The city has posted a re-districting brochure on its website in both Spanish and English. Restucci said it's possible residents may have already gotten all the information they needed from the website.

Districting impacts?

Sunnyside is pursuing the district plan, which impacts all four seats up for election this fall, because the Justice Department is concerned there is not enough Hispanic representation on the city council.

Due to concerns with the Voting Rights Act, federal officials see districting as a way to promote more Hispanic representation on the Sunnyside City Council.

The issue came into focus when a Whitman University student researched Hispanic representation based on an unofficial survey based simply on surnames in the Sunnyside phone book.

Councilwoman Theresa Hancock lives in what will be District 1 once council approves the district plan later this month. Her seat is up for election this fall and she doesn't think districts will have the intended effect.

"I think it's going to be much the same," she said.

Sunnyside City Manager Eric Swansen has been in city government for 20 years. He says over that time he has not seen a marked change in the make-up of city councils based on districts.

There is at least one Sunnysider, though, who is mulling a run for office this fall because of the move to districts.

Francisco Guerrero, Sunnyside branch manager for HAPO Community Credit Union, lives in what will be District 4. Appointed to the planning commission last year, Guerrero said last night he is considering running for the district council seat this fall.

Grandview, other Lower Valley cities may be next

The open house was watched closely by Uriel Iniguez, director for the commission on Hispanic affairs. He was in town from Olympia and praised the city's districting effort, even if the research that led to it was less scientific than he thought.

Prior to last night, Iniguez said he did not know the Sunnyside telephone book accounted for much of the Whitman student's research.

Even so, he's happy with the outcome it's produced in Sunnyside. Iniguez said citizens and government have to work together, that council and mayor cannot solve problems without participation of the people.

Iniguez also said the drive for city council districts won't stop with Sunnyside which, after Yakima, is just the second city to pursue the idea.

As for Toppenish, Grandview and other Lower Valley cities, Iniguez said simply, "That's next."

Restucci agrees that it's only a matter of time until the districting domino falls elsewhere in the Lower Valley.

"This is not an issue the Department of Justice is going to stop pursuing," he said, noting cities from Toppenish to Mabton could be impacted. "The Voting Rights Act applies to everyone, not just the city of Sunnyside."

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