WENATCHEE — The city of Wenatchee will elect future city councilmembers by districted voting, with five representatives voted in by ward and two elected at large, after a 6-1 council vote Thursday to adopt the new system.

The sole vote against the measure came from the sole Hispanic councilmember, Ruth Esparza — although the district system was adopted in part to ensure more Hispanic representation in city government.

"I do believe that we need diversity on the council," Esparza said before the vote. "... However, I also think it's not healthy to have a community divided, and I don't think it's healthy to weaken one group to strengthen another. I think if we rise, we rise together."

Wenatchee's population is roughly 30 percent Hispanic, but with its elections held at large rather than by geographic districts, the council has historically had large non-Hispanic majorities. The districting vote comes on the heels of Washington's new Voting Rights Act, adopted by the Legislature earlier this year.

Mayor Frank Kuntz has also promoted the measure to protect the city from voting-rights litigation. The city of Yakima was ordered in a 2014 federal court ruling to draw up districts to better represent its 45-percent Hispanic population. Defending the lawsuit cost Yakima $2.8 million in legal fees and costs paid to the plaintiffs.

Although all but Esparza voted for districts, most councilmembers, like Jim Bailey, said they remained torn.

"This is probably the most difficult decision I've probably had to make," Bailey said. "From the very beginning, I've had a lot of conflicting emotions and thoughts about this thing. It's kind of one of these things — on this hand, but on the other hand — but I've run out of hands."

The sitting councilmembers will not lose their seats; however, five will be assigned to serve out their current terms by representing newly-drawn districts. Two at-large councilmembers would be elected by a full vote of the city.

The measure, adopted on voice vote after being brought to the floor by Councilmember Mark Kulaas, was one of two options; the other would have apportioned seven voting districts with no at-large representation. At Esparza's request, the city's consultant on districted voting, Bill Cooper, drafted a potential three-district plan.

Kulaas said despite his vote, he worries new districts might not successfully increase voter representation. "I challenge all of us here , to agree after one, two, or three more city elections, to take a hard look at that," he said, "and if there are issues, we air those in public, and look for solutions."

Jefferson Robbins: 679-7013

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