Growth proves a challenge for ward system

If you live in Bainbridge Island’s central ward, you are represented by three city council members.

If you live in the north or south ward, you are represented by only two.

Believing that the arrangement may be illegal, the city council is considering redrawing Bainbridge Island’s political map more fundamentally than simply shifting the boundaries of the three wards.

“The indications we are getting from counsel are that our system of proportional representation may not be legal,” said Ralph Eells, city director of finance and administration.

Under state election law that applies to cities like Bainbridge Island that do not have a charter, candidates must live in the wards they seek to represent.

In the event that there are more than two candidates, and a primary election is required, voting is restricted to residents of that ward. But in the general election, all voters cast ballots in all council races.

According to the 2000 census, on which any redistricting will be based, the city’s north ward – basically from Koura Road north – has a population of 5,493, and has two council seats, meaning that the area has one council member for each 2,750 residents.

The south ward – everything south of Eagle Harbor plus everything south of High School Road and west of Finch – has a population is 5,212, or roughly 2,600 citizens per each of its two council members.

The central ward’s population of 9,603 is far the largest, but it elects three council members, or one per each 3,200 people.

Central ward residents have been “under-represented” in the sense that each of their council members serves more constituents than do members from the other wards.

To more nearly equalize the people-per-council-member ratio, Eells had proposed moving the part of the Island Center district north of New Brooklyn Road and east of Miller into the south ward.

Shifting those 821 residents would leave each central ward council member representing 2,930 people, and each south ward council member representing 3,016, while the north-ward number would remain at 2,750.

But maintaining Bainbridge’s 2-3-2 arrangement may not be legal. State election law explicitly states that each “internal council district shall be as nearly equal in population as possible to each and every other such district.”

Taken literally, that language seems to rule out having one ward with half again as many people as the other wards, even if it has half again as many council people.

County Auditor Karen Flynn thinks Bainbridge has to change.

“I think if Bainbridge had a charter, it might be able to have proportional representation,” she said, “but since it operates as a code city under state law, I think the council districts have to be equal in population.”

But then simple arithmetic becomes a problem. You can’t select seven council members from three wards and have the same number of members from each ward.

And “code” cities such as Bainbridge that operate under state law rather than under their own charter are limited to seven council members, foreclosing the option of increasing the council size to nine – three each from three wards.

Possible solutions include either eliminating the ward system altogether, and electing all seven council members at large, or creating seven wards. But either of those extremes has drawbacks.

“If you divide the city into seven wards, I’m not sure democracy will be well served,” Eells said. “It’s hard to find candidates as it is, and if we have a lot of small wards, I think we’ll have a lot more seats be uncontested, or even have no one run.”

But if ward lines are abolished, a candidate would have to run an island-wide race even in the primaries, making it more difficult for a new candidate to become known by door-to-door canvassing in only a portion of the island.

“For somebody new to city politics like me, it was hard enough to become known in part of the island,” newly elected council member Bill Knobloch said. “It would have been a lot harder if I would have had to run on the whole island in the primaries.”

One solution that Knobloch said is being talked about among the council members is to retain three wards of equal population and elect two members from each, while electing the seventh member at large.

But dividing the island into three areas of equal population isn’t easy – or necessarily logical – because it would mean putting roughly 1,500 more people from north of Eagle Harbor into the south ward.

Doing so would require either putting a good portion of the population of Winslow into the south ward, or creating a “southwest” ward by adding the Battle Point peninsula and much of Island Center.

Because state law requires cities to redraw their district lines within eight months after receiving census data from the county, the city council is poised to move forward quickly even though there won’t be another council election until November 2003.

“We are going to be taking this up very soon, probably in the next couple of weeks,” Knobloch said. “And of course, we expect this to be controversial.”

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