2021 King County Districting Committee Aims for an ‘Inclusive’ and ‘Community-Led’ Boundary Redrawing Process

by Jack Russillo

On Thursday, Jan. 21, the 2021 King County Districting Committee had its first meeting as it begins a yearlong process to redraw the King County Council district lines within King County.

The process will continue through most of 2021, as council district lines are redrawn in the year following a census, which occurred in 2020. On Jan. 12, the County Council appointed four of what will eventually be five members of the 2021 King County Districting Committee. A fifth committee member, who will be chosen by the four individuals who have already been selected, will serve as the chair of the districting committee.

“As our region continues to grow in population, it is important to set the boundaries of our County Council districts in a way that shows fairness and best represents the unique needs of each part of our county,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert. “I appreciate the commitment that these volunteers will make, and I look forward to working with them to update our district boundaries based on the new census data.”

The four committee members appointed last week are Sophia Danenberg, Paul Graves, Cherryl Jackson-Williams, and Rob Saka. 

In addition to leading international environmental policy analysis at the Boeing Company, Danenberg also volunteers on the boards of NatureBridge, the National Institute of Reproductive Health, on the legislative and public affairs committee for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, and on the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. An accomplished mountaineer, she became the first African American to successfully climb Mount Everest when she reached its summit in 2006.

Graves is a lawyer who has devoted years to representing foster youth for free in court proceedings, work that earned him the title of Pro Bono Attorney of the Year by King County’s leading foster youth advocacy organization, CASA. He has also served on the advisory boards of Hopelink and the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. Born and raised in Maple Valley, Graves previously served as a state representative for East King County from 2017 to 2019.

Jackson-Williams is a family and community engagement coordinator with the Renton School District. She believes in centering equity in decision-making processes, and she observes how decisions impact our most vulnerable community members and works in collaboration with others to identify solutions.

“In centering equity, one of the things I look for is the unintended consequences of decisions that we make,” said Jackson-Williams in a phone interview with the Emerald. “What can we do, how can we work, and what can we put in place to make sure that we minimize those unintended consequences? I believe that my role is not only bringing that voice from spaces and places like Skyway, but bringing that representation of other places in South King County because they don’t always have the kind of mobilizing voices that a city like Seattle may have.”

Saka is a cybersecurity and compliance attorney, a police reform advocate, and a United States Air Force veteran. Saka has been involved in the community for years, serving on nonprofit boards such as the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, representing homeless military veterans pro bono through the Seattle Stand Down initiative, and providing legal advice to underserved entrepreneurs with Communities Rise. More recently, Saka served on the King County Charter Review Commission where helped champion and pass three police accountability and equity amendments to the county’s Charter — namely, those related to the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) subpoena power, inquests, and adding new antidiscrimination protections for family caregivers and working families — which were approved by voters in November 2020.

“My priorities are to center the voices of impacted communities and give life to their voices as we think about this important work,” said Saka in a phone interview with the Emerald. “I also want to make sure that this is a process that is driven by the 2020 census data — that’s by law, it has to be a data-driven process — and I want to make sure that it’s as much of a community-led process as possible. That means getting as much perspective and input from community members.”

In what is a first for the county’s districting committee, three of the members are Black. In 2011, the last time the county district boundaries were redrawn, none of the committee members were Black.

The duty of the committee is to redraw the boundaries of the nine County Council districts using 2020 census data in a process that runs parallel to state and federal redistricting.

After naming its committee chair, the districting committee — with the support of an outside data consultant called a “districting master” — will work and meet virtually throughout 2021 to provide the updated Council district map to the County Council by the end of January 2022. The new map will become effective once it is submitted to the King County Council, which will not have the power to approve or amend the map. Whatever lines the committee presents to the Council, those are the boundaries that will be adopted.

As in past years, state law and the King County Charter require King County to redraw King County Council district boundaries using the most recent U.S. Census data. The statutes require that the boundaries of each district correspond as nearly as practical with the boundaries of existing municipalities, election precincts, census tracts, recognized natural boundaries, and communities of related and mutual interest. The new lines should produce districts with compact and contiguous territory and be composed of economic and geographic units. The new districts should also be as nearly equal in population as possible. Population data may not be used for purposes of favoring or disfavoring any racial group or political party.

Jackson-Williams said that confronting the effects of gentrification is one of the focuses she’s bringing to the committee table.

“From the anecdotal experience that I’ve had, I am appreciating that there’s a great migration happening, not because of desire, but because of a lack of resources and a lack of opportunities,” said Jackson-Williams. “You have a lot more folks that are getting pushed further and further from the City of Seattle and into a different city. I would love for us to be able to clarify that because, like I said, it would be so appropriate for us to identify those pockets of where communities are and be able to draw lines that truly create an inclusive environment for everyone and bring people together.”

One of the primary responsibilities of the committee is to draw district boundaries that will prevent gerrymandering and other issues that help favor certain groups in electoral constituencies. While Saka noted that he was unaware of any particular instances of gerrymandering within King County, he said that the committee will follow the legal criteria and work to prevent any instances of gerrymandering from appearing while also promoting equity among local communities. 

The committee does not have to uphold natural features or barriers that currently help define district boundaries — such as rivers or highways like Interstate 5 — but it should try to preserve as many of those natural dividers as much as possible, Saka said, as long as the decisions still abide by and make sense according to the criteria in statute.

“My hope and my goal with this project is to bring life and give voice to the movement of people and their demands for justice that we’ve seen across the country, with respect to Black lives,” said Saka. “In light of the fact that people from BIPOC communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, how can we rebuild King County and restructure the government in a fair, just, and equitable way? Those things will permeate every aspect of my approach to this particular committee. … We’re going to fully comply with the law. But for me personally, I will also work hard to center the voices of impacted groups that have been shut out of the process for too long.”

Editors’ Note: The first paragraph of this article was changed after publication to reflect that the King County Districting Committee meeting had occurred in the past rather than being upcoming at time of publication. UPDATE, 2/3/21: We corrected the article to state that in 2011, the last time the county district boundaries were redrawn, none of the committee members were Black. Originally, we stated that there was a lone Black committee member, Terrence A. Carrol. We have removed this as it was a mistake on our part.

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured Image: Illustration showing results of 2011 King County redistricting process courtesy of Metropolitan King County (public domain).

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