Under court order, Yakima must change how it elects city leaders.

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YAKIMA has been embroiled in a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit for more than two and a half years. Anyone who has been involved in litigation knows it can be painful. It gets more complicated, and rather uncomely, when you consider the passions and tensions that occur when racial issues collide with politics. Nevertheless, there are political solutions in Olympia that potentially could remedy much of this — only if we build bridges over the polarization that tends to grip our public discourse.

Agriculture is at the heart of this city of more than 90,000 people, and I am proud to be a mayor of a diverse population — more than 41 percent of residents are Latino.

I know how important diversity is. I voted for Sonia Rodriguez to fill a vacancy on the City Council. I was proud of the council for appointing her to the position. Rodriguez then had to run in the subsequent vacancy election. She not only had the support of the Latino community, she built a broad-based coalition of people from all walks of life.

However, this was not enough to win: Rodriguez lost the election by 2 percentage points. This was the result of winner-takes-all rules where a close second place meant all the support this candidate had earned produced nothing.

Apparently, this loss and others did not go unnoticed and our city was hit with a lawsuit alleging Yakima’s election system was in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs made their charges in a way that the city’s leadership found offensive. I feel I work with decent people on our council and allegations of racial prejudice personally stung. The complaint accused the City Council of indifference to the interests of the Latino community and of subjecting Latinos to official discrimination.

The complaint pointed to Yakima’s winner-takes-all, at-large election system as fostering racially polarized voting. The plaintiffs and their American Civil Liberties Union lawyers demanded an exclusive district system for Yakima’s seven-member council. In addition, one of these seats needed to be a so-called majority-minority district. The idea behind this is to draw certain “protected classes” — in this case Latinos — into districts that virtually guarantee their preferred candidate’s election.

We feel that every citizen should have a voice in city government. We proposed a hybrid district — a modified at-large plan similar to Seattle’s. What is different about our proposal is that we are not proposing winner-takes-all rules.

Yet, in a summary ruling, the court ultimately found Yakima’s election system in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

However, we stuck to a compromise: We created one exclusive Latino district, among five other districts. In addition, two seats would be elected through a modified at-large system.

Modified at-large voting is used by more than 100 jurisdictions in the United States. The idea is to be inclusive of voters, regardless of where they live, what they look like or what they believe. With modified at-large elections, we propose the first- and second-place top vote-getters should win election.

No matter what our real needs are, the plaintiffs and their attorneys strenuously opposed our compromise plan. Unfortunately, the court agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled for exclusive districts.

As a result, a federal judge basically recalled our whole City Council. And Yakima also got clobbered with a $2.8 million legal bill from the ACLU.

Believe me, I know a lot about the heartache of defending a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit. This is why I support an amended Washington Voting Rights Act. The goal of this legislation is to keep cities — and their tax dollars — out of court. The key is to give local jurisdictions the latitude to settle controversy before the legal bills start stacking up.

The state Senate needs to pass ESHB 1745 with amendments. It would ensure that a plaintiff couldn’t run to a state court if the plaintiff doesn’t prevail in a federal action. A state judge couldn’t recall a whole body of public servants — many of whom, like me, are part-time or volunteer. Finally, the bill is clear about a modified at-large option for jurisdictions, such as Yakima’s, that need this kind of flexibility.

Polarization, be it racial or political, is holding us back. Yakima is literally being divided by way of law. We need to come together as Washingtonians and Americans. This is a land of opportunity and diversity. I hope we can keep this ideal alive in our beautiful Yakima Valley.