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Districts: Gresham should go back to the future

Gresham voters faced a daunting question in 1986: Shall the Gresham city charter be changed to have city councilors elected 'at-large,' or should they continue to be elected by district?

For Measure 51, philosophical lines were drawn, passions ignited and debates ensued.

Gresham City Council President Larry Deyo and political activist, and then-owner of McIntire's Athletic Club, Don McIntire took opposing sides. Both had previously lost City Council races.

According to the Gresham Outlook, at a 1986 Gresham Chamber forum, Deyo advocated for keeping district representations (there were six then, as there are now.)

McIntire promoted abolishing districts and moving to electing councilors on a citywide basis.

The charter amendment to change to an 'at-large' council ultimately passed and eliminated 'district' representation by 200 votes - 3,847 to 3,639. The 1986 population in Gresham was about 40,000.

McIntire, a principal supporter of Measure 51, believed at-large representation would present the most qualified list of candidates, with the elected to be determined by the city as a whole.

But, ironically, as reported by The Outlook, he also said this: 'Districting is valid in a large city, which has a variety of ethnic, cultural and economic interests.'

Deyo, opposing Measure 51, concurred, regardless of a city's size, that, 'Districts are necessary to represent the different interests of the city.'

In the local media, on May 17, 1986, prior to the May election, the Gresham Outlook opposed Measure 51.

In an editorial, The Outlook noted that district representation worked well. In fact, because the city was expanding, The Outlook was concerned that city expansion would change the city's 'composition' to the extent that at-large elections could open the door to 'severe imbalances of representation' that could result in 'newly annexed areas or traditional Gresham neighborhoods having no council representation.'

Fast forward to Gresham today, a city showing a population of 106,000.

Currently, an advocacy group, spearheaded by former Gresham City Councilor Dick Strathern and resident Mads Ledet, is meeting with neighborhood leadership to gain support for a community vote in the November 2012 election regarding district city council representation.

They believe, as do I, that circumstances today validate a return to council representation through district voting.

Once again there will be advocates on both sides.

I would argue for creation of a nine-member city council: mayor, six district representatives and two at-large representatives.

The addition of two at-large councilors, with the mayor elected at-large and six elected by district, forms a blend of representation that is not a compromise, but an effective way of ensuring the 'large-city view' of at-large representatives, with the 'focused view' of district representatives.

It also avoids the voting power of individual districts and their neighborhoods being diluted. The change would take effect starting in 2014 and ending in 2016 so that all current terms would be completed.

Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs said this: 'You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.'

While both Larry Deyo and Don McIntire did not have the benefit of knowing that Gresham would almost triple in size over the next 26 years, we all can now picture how those dots align: 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.

As we grow, balanced district representation, and the neighborhoods each district represents, will fairly and effectively give equal voice to every Gresham citizen.

John Kilian has been a practicing general dentist in Gresham-Troutdale for 37 years and a member of Gresham City Council.



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