Spokane will soon have new City Council districts that unite neighborhoods, but the proposed map is causing controversy because it was put forward by a council member whose re-election odds will improve after its adoption.
Every decade, Spokane redraws the boundaries of its three City Council districts to ensure each has the same number of residents. The city earlier this year tasked three volunteers, appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council, with drawing a new map.
Those three redistricting board members – Rick Friedlander, Heather Beebe-Stevens and Jennifer Thomas – worked on maps through the summer and into the fall. They made more than a dozen of them, whittled the list down to a final four and eventually settled on one they could unanimously support.
It was an undramatic conclusion to a monthslong effort. The board members recommended the City Council approve Map 1, which evened out population differences but left the existing district boundaries mostly unchanged.
The City Council isn’t going to approve the recommended map, though. The council on Monday voted 4-2 in favor of a map drawn by City Councilman Zack Zappone, drawing rebukes from conservatives and praise from liberals.
The map City Council members prefer differs from the recommended one in a couple of key ways.
First, Map 2 keeps more neighborhoods intact. It will unite the East Central and West Hills neighborhoods that previously had been split into multiple City Council districts.
Second, it makes District 3 – a swing district covering northwest Spokane – significantly more likely to elect liberal council members based on the results of the last two municipal elections.
It achieves that by trading some marginally liberal voting precincts on the south end of District 3 for some decidedly liberal ones south of the river in Browne’s Addition on the north end of District 2, which represents southern Spokane.
Map 2 also makes District 2 slightly less liberal and District 1 slightly less conservative. The change in District 2 is unlikely to affect all but the closest elections, while the change in District 1 could lead to toss-up races in some years.
The City Council’s decision has created controversy in large part because it could benefit Zappone. He won election to the City Council in 2021 by 262 votes – a 1.3% margin of victory – over his conservative opponent Mike Lish.
City Council members never said before Monday’s meeting that they were leaning against the redistricting board’s recommendation.
But some people intuited the decision was coming anyway. The Spokane Association of Realtors and Spokane County Republican Party urged people to speak in opposition to Map 2, as did Mayor Nadine Woodward as part of a re-election campaign email.
Dozens gave testimony Monday night, with many of them reading from prepared statements and arguing that Zappone’s participation in the redistricting process was unethical.
The comments weren’t all civil.
“Council members, don’t spit on me and tell me it’s raining,” said Tyler Giuliacci, who worked as a manager and consultant on Lish’s campaign.
Map 1 proponents accused City Council members of partisanship and ignoring the will of the people.
“Map No. 2, let’s call it, essentially cherry picks a number of the richest Democratic districts and precincts and slides them into District 3,” said Darin Watkins, government affairs director for the Spokane Association of Realtors. “This is gerrymandering.”
Most of the testimony was in support of Map 1, but Map 2 also had a fair share of backers. Several commenters made a case for keeping neighborhoods intact.
“Divide and conquer is kind of the rule in politics,” said Jim Dawson, a program director with Fuse Washington. “When you divide a neighborhood, it means you have less influence with any of your elected officials, even if you have more of them.”
After more than an hour of public comment, City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson motioned to amend the proposed ordinance and select Map 2.
“Contrary to what’s been said, I really am putting people over party,” Wilkerson said. “Communities and neighborhoods are what’s important in District 2 and all of these neighborhoods that would be split are in District 2.”
City Council members Lori Kinnear, Karen Stratton and Wilkerson, as well as City Council President Breean Beggs, voted in favor of the amendment. Council members Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle voted against it.
“There’s been a lot of talk about me in this process, so I just wanted to remove myself from the process,” he said Monday night.
Bingle said he thinks Map 1 is clearly better. He made a point on Monday night of reading aloud Washington’s redistricting law.
State law requires districts to be equal in population. Districts have to be compact, without any odd appendages or cutouts, and adhere to natural boundaries. They can’t favor any race or political party. Communities of interest, such as neighborhoods, have to be kept together as much as possible.
Map 1 is superior by nearly every one of those criteria, Bingle said.
The northeast Spokane councilman said he believes Map 2 is gerrymandered.
“I think it’s really hard to look at that map and not see it drawn because of its political implications,” he said.
Bingle also said it was inappropriate for Zappone to have drawn a map and presented it to the redistricting board.
Zappone, who was chosen by the City Council as an adviser to the redistricting board, defended his participation in the redistricting process. He said Map 2 is the only one that complied with state law while also taking into account public feedback.
He stressed that Friedlander, Beebe-Stevens and Thomas unanimously approved Map 2 as one of their final four selections. He also said that Beebe-Stevens drew a map that was identical to his. In hindsight, Zappone said, the Beebe-Stevens version should have been included in the final four to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.
Zappone said members of the public who commented during the redistricting process said neighborhoods should be kept together and downtown Spokane should be split three ways.
“The No. 1 feedback that we got in the process before it got more political was, ‘Don’t divide the neighborhood councils and those communities of interest,’ ” he said.
Zappone said he didn’t consider whether Map 2 would affect the outcome of future District 3 elections.
“Maps don’t determine the outcome of an election, it’s the candidate, the campaign and how you govern,” he said.
The City Council won’t technically approve the final map until Nov. 7, but Monday’s decision was effectively final because state law gives the city a Nov. 15 deadline to finish the redistricting process.
Assistant City Attorney Mike Piccolo explained that the council has to give the public one week’s notice before voting on its redistricting plan. If the City Council makes an amendment to the plan, it can’t finalize it until a week later.
The council isn’t meeting on Halloween. That leaves two meetings before Nov. 15. Piccolo said making a change on Nov. 7 would be risky.
“I’m afraid that you’re not going to meet that one-week requirement,” he said. “It could be just a number of hours or minutes, but I would not want to put the council in that position to create a legal challenge to your decision.”
Correspondent Jim Camden contributed to this report.