An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After lawsuit, controversy, Spokane could revamp its redistricting process

The Spokane City Council voted to back "map 2" at its October 24 meeting.
Spokane City Council
The Spokane City Council voted to back "map 2" which was first created by Spokane City Councilman Zack Zappone, during the final stages of redistricting last fall.

Last year’s redistricting process was a source of controversy on all sides.

Conservatives claimed the lines were gerrymandered, because Northwest District City Councilmember Zack Zappone submitted his own maps. One proposal gave him a slight advantage in the next election.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, and real estate and business groups, were linked to a campaign against that map. They supported another version that left the current lines largely in place. Progressives worried the campaign politicized a non-partisan process.

Last fall, the city council adopted Zappone’s proposal, instead of the map that had been recommended by the volunteer redistricting committee.

The adopted map eventually ended up in court. A judge found its boundaries were not gerrymandered. But he did strongly suggest the city clarify its charter.

City Councilmember Michael Cathcart said his proposed charter amendment could go a long way toward solving that confusion.

“The timing is perfect, because obviously what the judge ruled recently was that while he let the maps remain, he did say that there needs to be a cleanup of the charter, it needs to be less confusing, and there needs to be this prohibition of some kind on council members being able to effect the outcome,” he said. “I think this accomplishes all of that, and does it in a way that really, really strives to remove from the process.”

Cathcart’s proposal makes a few key changes to the process. The independent three-person committee that draws maps would grow to a seven-member commission. Three would be appointed by the city council, three more by the mayor, and a non-voting chair selected by the other members. The members would be vetted by the city’s planning commission to make sure they meet current requirements, such as not being a lobbyist and not running for office for two years after a final map is adopted.

The city council would also be limited to considering only what the seven-member commission proposes. The final change would clarify an untested part of Spokane’s charter, which allows the city to redistrict five years after a census, instead of ten years.

Cathcart said the changes will make redistricting more transparent, and closer to what voters have seen at the state or county level.

“Boundaries really do matter,” he said, “That's what kind of creates our districts, our communities, our joint values. So, it makes a ton of sense that we would have a process that we would believe in, that we would have faith in, and this proposal really does that and does it in a meaningful way.”

Last year’s redistricting was the city’s third under the current system.

Spokane’s current governing structure has been in place since 2001, when voters decided to elect council members by district, instead of city-wide.

Rick Friedlander, who chaired the 2022 redistricting committee, said for the most part, he supports Cathcart’s proposal. He said more than three people are needed to manage the task of redistricting. He also said elected officials shouldn’t be able to overrule their work.

“I think you just say no, this is it,” he said. “You delegated the authority, this is what you got.”

Friedlander said he doesn’t believe the map the city council adopted was gerrymandered, but said he was uncomfortable with some parts of the process – such as countless copy-and-paste emails linked to business- and real estate-backed interests, and text messages between Zappone and allies that came to light during the lawsuit.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said he agrees some elements of redistricting may need to change, but he’d likely approach it differently than Cathcart.

Beggs said he doesn’t believe the mayor should be appointing any of the commission members, which is status quo now, and remains as part of Cathcart’s proposal. He said he’s also not comfortable giving up the City Council’s role in approving the final map – unless they have more input on who is on the commission.

“It’s a challenge to not have the council do it, because they're the ones that are elected by the actual people,” Beggs said., “but I think if you went to my proposal - where each council member nominated someone that they thought would be fair from their district, I'd probably be more comfortable with that.”

The Spokane City Council will likely consider the proposal sometime next month. If the city council approves a version, it will be on the ballot for voter approval this fall.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.