In 2007, The Bee endorsed a move to electing Modesto City Council members by district rather than at large with everyone voting on every council race. It wasn't a rousing recommendation, but we suggested it was time to try something new, largely because most of the council members were coming from only a few of the established and wealthier neighborhoods.
Voters supported the change and by-district selection went into effect with the 2009 election, with the transition completed in 2011. So how is this system working? With only one full cycle behind us, we think it's too soon for final grade. Our progress report would show a B.
Diversity: The switch to by-district elections has not changed the ethnic makeup of the council or its shortage of women.
The district with the largest Latino population, southwest Modesto, chose an older white guy over a Latino. Most agree that Dave Geer has been a conscientious representative for District 2. He puts in more hours than any of his council colleagues, attending not only city functions and activities in his district but also meetings of the Modesto Irrigation District, Modesto school board and other agencies. Geer is not running for re-election and three Latino men have taken out preliminary papers.
The council's lone Latino, Dave Lopez, was elected at large in 2007 and then re-elected in 2011 to represent District 3.
Stephanie Burnside is the only woman on the council. She was challenged in 2011 by the only other woman on the ballot, Jenny Kenoyer, who also will be running against Burnside this year.
Narrow thinking or turf battles: In their public discussions, at least, the six council members seem to be thinking about the needs of the whole city and not just their districts. Geer has spoken openly about the many needs of his area but not to a fault. As the representative of Village I, Dave Cogdill Jr. has taken the lead on the dispute with the Modesto City Schools over Mello-Roos taxes in that area, again as would be expected.
For most of the past four years, the council was dealing with how to cut the city budget. There was no extra money to direct to one neighborhood over another. As the city budget recovers, this dynamic could change.
Neighborhood associations have grown and been encouraged in recent years, though it isn't clear whether this was a result of by-district elections. More likely it's a byproduct of persistent crime, especially burglaries, auto theft, gangs and graffiti. One plus: A neighborhood trying to form an association has an identifiable council member with whom to work.
Fair maps: The district lines were drawn by a Citizens' Commission in a very public process albeit with not a lot of public participation. After the 2010 Census numbers were in, the maps were revised, again with good opportunity for public input.
Cost of campaigning: While John Gunderson won his election to District 1 on a couple of hundred dollars and shoe leather, we think that was an aberration, not a sign that low-budget campaigns will always be successful. As the numbers on Page D-1 show, winning a council seat still requires thousands of dollars.
And while less of the money is coming from home builders than during the housing heyday, there's still substantial money coming from development interests and public safety unions.
Voter turnout: This is the most disappointing trend evident so far. We had hoped perhaps naively that citizens would be more likely to vote when they were choosing among candidates they had met face to face dealing with neighborhood issues. So far, turnout has not improved and in the case of southwest Modesto, it is abysmally low.