George A. Petrulakis: It could be worse
The lopsided passage of Measure N in 2008 by Modestans brought immediate benefits to the city of Modesto.
When more than 70 percent of Modesto voters implemented district elections, it helped bring to an end expensive litigation the city faced under the California Voting Rights Act.
As The Bee reported on Feb. 7, 2008, the city had spent more than $1.7 million fighting the 2004 lawsuit. Appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the adoption of Measure N stopped that spending.
The measure also boosted the respect of voters for City Hall.
Pre-election polling conducted by the campaign committee for Measure M, a companion to N, showed that while individual city councilmembers and certainly Mayor Jim Ridenour were popular, the Modesto City Council as a collective entity was not. Also, many voters felt Modesto was on the wrong track.
The passage of the two measures brought forward by the Charter Review Committee assuaged concerns in the short run.
How have district elections worked in Modesto since these early benefits?
In preparing my December testimony for the city of Anaheim's Advisory Committee on Elections, I had the opportunity to assess the results so far.
The value of a vote diverges greatly in Modesto. If you live in the low-turnout Modesto district where just over 1,000 people vote, your vote arguably is worth more than 4½ times what it would be in the four high-turnout districts where about 4,600 to 4,700 voters vote.
If you wanted more minority candidates elected to office, you have been disappointed so far. Perhaps not enough attention has been paid to the Citizens' Districting Commission, created by Measure N to draw the district lines. Any politician knows that district lines can seal their fate.
Finally, while the barriers to election have fallen significantly since it takes a lot less time and money to effectively campaign, the number of candidates running in open seats has often been less than under the previous at-large system.
These results may change over time.
Also testifying at the Anaheim hearing was Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt. In providing guidance on the California Voting Rights Act, Levitt cited evidence that voting in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods should increase over time as individuals learn that their vote now "matters."
In addition, he schooled Anaheim in the more exotic remedies available under the California Voters Right Act that allow the imposition of European-style (and now San Francisco-style) voting systems on all of us.
District elections may not yet be working in Modesto as intended, but it could be worse. Much worse.
Petrulakis, a Modesto lawyer, chaired the most recent Modesto Charter Review Committee.
Joan Clendenin: Follow lead of Ceres school board
The issue of school districts and cities switching from at-large to by-district elections is emotionally charged and riddled with conflict and hazards.
The city of Modesto was challenged by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, using the loosely worded language of the California Voting Rights Act, to implement some form of by-district elections. The city eventually lost the court battle and began a process that resulted in district elections. Now the county school boards have to deal with the same band of lawyers.
I opposed the change because I believed that collegiality was as important as any benefit from the change. Almost every vote cast by the City Council affects the entire city. Why wouldn't you want the decision-makers to have been elected citywide?
I'm also offended by the process. The Voting Rights Act allows an out-of-area group of lawyers to send "demand" letters to cities and school districts to force them to make a decision that should be made by the local jurisdictions at a time of their own choosing. I believe in the democratic process and that citizen governing boards need to have "fair community representation."
The decision to run for any elective office is a personal decision. Citizens run or don't run for myriad personal and political reasons. I believe the reason Latinos and African- Americans are not on these boards because running for office is an expensive and time-consuming process and that's before you win. There are some who argue that even if elected, they would be outvoted by a white majority.
A recent demand letter prompted six Stanislaus County school districts to postpone their school board elections until November 2014. They acted both too late and too soon. The members of those boards whose terms expire in 2013 granted themselves an extra year in office. Was the vote to change the election date a conflict of interest? Will the votes they cast next year be challenged? Empire, smartly, is studying its options.
I believe the Ceres School District board elections process is the fairest way to go given the CVRA objective, which is to give "minority voters a better chance of electing candidates of their choice." The Ceres blend of two at-large seats and the remainder by-district elections produces a balanced board. My advice to those six districts and others that are dealing with this issue take a look at Ceres.
Clendenin, a delegate to the 2012 Republican National Convention, has long been active in Stanislaus County Republican politics.
Dale Butler: Greater diversity will come soon
Some of the arguments put forth by many who supported by-district elections during the 2008 City elections were that 1) the makeup of our council would become more diverse, 2) campaign-related costs would be reduced, and 3) constituents would have improved representation and access to city government.
While council diversity (gender and ethnic) under by-district elections has not improved compared to most pre-2009 at-large councils, I believe the future bodes well for these and other underrepresented groups. This is especially true in districts with high underrepresented populations, as long as constituents vote.
As for lower campaign-related costs under by-district elections, analysis should show, I believe, that smaller geographical areas mean reduced expenditures for staff, materials, and travel. Some candidates will still splurge to get elected, but the fact remains that higher spending is no longer necessary, unless, of course, one is running in countywide, state and federal races.
By-district elections have also improved representation and access for constituents to city services. Constituents tend to feel more at ease in expressing concerns to councilmembers who live in their neighborhoods, and councilmembers tend to do more outreach within smaller districts.
Litigation against the city of Modesto aside, I am glad voters approved by-district elections in 2008. While a more inclusive and diverse council has not yet materialized, I have every expectation that this will happen soon.
Butler is a Latino community leader.