By Mónica Mendoza-Castrejón and Dennis R. Higgins Jr.
If you were asked who your city councilmembers are, would you have an answer? Most of us would not. Here in Kent, we don’t have district representatives in the city. Instead, we have at-large council members that are supposed to represent the interest of over 130,000 people. That may work in a small town but may not work as well in the sixth-largest city in Washington. What if we were to tell you that you could have your own representative who focuses on the issues in your neighborhood in Kent? Wouldn’t you want your representative to know what’s going on in your neighborhood; whether it be Panther Lake, West Hill, or Lake Meridian? Couldn’t your representatives better represent you?
Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you, a solution: Creating council member districts, and electing city councilmembers from these districts, instead of at-large.
Here’s why this is good. Historically, some Kent neighborhoods like the West Hill and Valley of Kent have rarely had direct representation. If we were to change our election system to districts, it would be required for a councilmember to live in one of five (or seven, but more on that later) districts. When campaigning, rather than trying to knock on the doors of all 70,000 city households, they would be knocking in the areas represented in their district. When elected, they would bring the concerns of the neighborhoods in their district to city hall.
Our current at-large system made sense when Kent was a town of 40,000 but we’ve grown to 136,000 people – and we will continue to grow! We have an increasingly diverse city, with many wonderful and unique neighborhoods. Our current councilmembers are doing an admirable job, but since most of them live in one part of the city – the East Hill – policy discussions around housing, public safety, and transportation are often focused on this area. Kent is so much more than East Hill; we have the Valley, the West Hill, and even the East Hill is not uniform and has its own unique neighborhoods.
Because Kent is growing, districts would also increase the opportunity for voices who have not been historically represented on the city council to be heard. Our council will be able to reflect the growing diversity of our city, not just by racial/ethnic background, but by class, housing situation, and religion. The city of Yakima, a majority-Latino community, had a majority-white council that all lived in one neighborhood. When Yakima changed to districts, the council better-reflected their community, with three Latinas elected for the first time from different neighborhoods.
Whether you want better representation from your neighborhood to come out in policy and budget talks, or want our government to reflect the diversity in our city, it’s time. Let’s change Kent’s city council system to districts.
Mónica Mendoza-Castrejón is a third year law student at Seattle University School of Law and a Kent resident/homeowner. Dennis R. Higgins Jr. is a former Kent City Councilmember.