Advocates of changing from at-large to district representation will seek signatures come June
A citizen initiative to change Gresham City Council representation from at-large to district is on track to appear on the November 2012 ballot: the city recorder approved the city charter amendment's language on Friday, May 18, positioning advocates to begin collecting signatures by mid-June.
The proposed change would create an at-large mayor and six council districts with a representative who lives in each. Currently the city has seven at-large representatives - a mayor and six councilors, all unpaid.
'In reality, you have seven mayors right now; each councilor is running the entire city ... and their constituents are the entire city,' said Richard Strathern, a former one-term councilor leading the districting effort. '(Districts) would better hold the mayor accountable and hold other councilors accountable.
'That's really what this mechanism is about - holding people responsible.'
Position 1 Councilor David Widmark has said the district method prevents the most qualified candidates from running.
'I actually was living here in Gresham in the 1980s when we had districts,' Widmark said in March. 'We couldn't get good, qualified candidates to run. That's why we changed to at-large; you don't get some of the stronger candidates that can represent the whole of the issues.'
Advocates say large areas of the city are underrepresented.
Most of the current councilors live in the Gresham Butte neighborhood. According to the 2010 census, almost 5,400 of Gresham's nearly 106,000 residents live there. Other councilors live in Hollybrook - 3,350 residents - and Northwest - 7,280.
But councilors don't live in the most populous neighborhoods - Rockwood and North Central, with 15,920 and 11,450, respectively.
State Rep. Matt Wand, R-Troutdale, who represents the Rockwood and North Central neighborhoods and is also a lawyer for the initiative, said that while he has 'an excellent relationship with the Gresham City Council and Mayor (Shane) Bemis,' district representation has its advantages.
'It is clear that Rockwood and North Gresham have no current councilors residing in those neighborhoods,' Wand said in an email. 'Although all of our current councilors are able public servants with integrity, it is difficult for them to know all of the unique issues that affect these neighborhoods when they do not live there.'
Mads Ledet, vice president of the Gresham Butte Neighborhood Association, said it's not comforting that most councilors live in his neighborhood.
'Most people's gut reaction is, 'That's not right,'' Ledet said. 'Forcing dispersal by using districts and precincts just makes a lot of sense to most people.'
Strathern launched the districting effort in March, after a citizen Charter Review Committee chose not to include the change in a series of charter amendments on the May 15 ballot.
The proposed charter amendment is a throwback to 1970s Gresham, when voters decided to change from at-large to district representation.
They narrowly elected to return to at-large in 1986.
In the '80s, proponents on each side echoed the arguments of modern advocates: at-large allows the most qualified candidates to run for councilor; districts best represent the varied interests in the city.
Position 4 Councilor John Kilian wrote in an Outlook op-ed that 'ironically,' back in 1986 the lead supporter for at-large representation said, 'Districting is valid in a large city, which has a variety of ethnic, cultural and economic interests.'
Kilian supports expanding council to nine positions, with an at-large mayor, two at-large councilors and six district councilors.
'Our community has evolved to a larger, more diverse, multi-cultural city that will continue to be challenged by future development in Pleasant Valley and Springwater,' Kilian wrote. 'As we grow, balanced district representation, and the neighborhoods each district represents, will fairly and effectively give equal voice to every Gresham citizen.'