Modesto voters say 'Yes' to Measures M and N

February 6, 2008 

Voting for council members will get a makeover when 2009 rolls around.

BART AH YOU — The Modesto Bee

Modesto voters on Tuesday swept in major changes to the way City Hall does business.

They ushered in two government reform measures, one of them setting Modesto on course to adopt district elections for City Council races in 2009. Measure N was passed with more than 71 percent of the vote late Tuesday.

Voters also supported Measure M, a package of revisions to Modesto's charter that collectively gives the council more authority over the city's management. It passed with 78 percent of the vote.

Each needed 50 percent plus one vote to pass. The tallies came with 100 percent of the precincts counted.

"People wanted change and accountability and they voted for it," said Sandy Lucas, who helped write the measures last year as a member of the city's Charter Review Committee.

Measure N's success reverses a 2001 city vote that overwhelmingly rejected districts. Since then, demand for the change has swelled among several groups.

Some wanted to reduce the cost of council campaigns, arguing it was getting prohibitively expensive to run a citywide race.

Others pushed for district elections to bring neighborhood concerns to the council. Five of the seven council members live east of McHenry Avenue, which roughly divides the city in half.

In 2004, three Latino residents sued the city for district elections under a state voting law. They contended that citywide races stacked the odds against minority candidates.

Modesto unsuccessfully tried to scuttle the lawsuit by overturning the California Voting Rights Act in court. The next step in that lawsuit is unclear now that voters have approved district elections.

"I'm just really proud to say that what we did in bringing the lawsuit must've brought on the necessary attention to put this on the map," said Salvador Vera, one of the residents who filed the voting lawsuit. "It benefits everyone, not just the Latino voter."

Council seats held by Janice Keating, Kristin Olsen and Will O'Bryant will be the first to switch to the district format. The other three seats will go to districts in 2011. Modesto's mayor remains a citywide office.

Just three California cities larger than Modesto use at-large elections; the rest have districts. City voters endorsed an advisory measure in November that asked whether they would support the change to districts. Tuesday's vote made it final.

Measure M drew heated criticism in recent weeks.

Former Mayor Carmen Sabatino emerged as a leading opponent to Measure M, calling the changes unnecessary.

Another group waged an anonymous campaign against the measure by paying for automated phone calls criticizing the measure's potential pay raises for the council. It's not known who orchestrated the calls.

But Measure M won endorsements from all seven council members, the city's main political parties and its public safety unions.

"We're really pleased the voters saw Measure M as accountability, and we're grateful for this," Mayor Jim Ridenour said. "Future councils have the tools to ensure accountability in government."

Measure M expands the council's power by:

Mandating the mayor's early involvement in writing the city's budget, a process that happens now only when the city manager allows it.

Demanding that the council write goals for each city department, and holding executives accountable through annual reviews.

Requiring the council to hire a city auditor answerable exclusively to elected officials.

The measure also opens the door to council pay raises.

It calls for the creation of a five-person salary-setting commission that can determine the council's pay, with a cap of $88,800 a year for the mayor and about $26,000 for council members. They earn $9,600 a year now.

Ridenour said he expects to begin appointing people within two months to the commissions to set salaries and draw districts.

The Charter Review Committee spent more than a year studying government and looking for ways to make City Hall more transparent before offering up the proposals that became Measures M and N.

"It's exciting because it's validating," Lucas said. "But it's most important for the citizens because they're finally going to have accountability."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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