CERES — The City Council decided Monday to move forward with district elections after the leader of a Latino group said the city's at-large elections violate the law and expose the city to expensive litigation.
Electing council members by district rather than by citywide vote is intended to make the council better reflect Ceres' racial and ethnic makeup.
Even though Latinos are 56 percent of this city's more than 45,000 residents, only one Latino has served on the council. Guillermo Ochoa was appointed to the council in 2005, elected in 2007 and lost his bid for re-election in 2011.
Asians make up nearly 7 percent of the city's population, and blacks make up 2.6 percent.
"This is a very important issue," Ochoa told council members at Monday's study session on district elections.
Not counting city staff, about a half-dozen people attended the study session.
The council took up the issue after Latino Community Roundtable of Stanislaus County President Maggie Mejia and Legislative Chairwoman Rosalinda Vierra sent the city a letter in February claiming the city's at-large elections violate state and federal voting acts.
The women wrote that their group would sue if the council did not immediately adopt district elections and stated that at-large elections "coupled with a lack of term limits, and no campaign finance limits, is nothing short of an incumbent-protection voting scheme."
Mejia disavowed her voting scheme comment after council members said they were offended to read about it in Monday's Bee. She also said the roundtable has no intention of filing a lawsuit.
"We want to help," she said. "We are not the enemy."
But Ceres could be sued by civil rights groups.
Modesto moved to district elections in 2008 after losing a lawsuit brought by a San Francisco civil rights law firm. The city paid a $3 million settlement and spent $1.4 million fighting the case. Soon after, the Ceres Unified School District put up no fight when the same law firm sent a warning letter.
Ceres City Attorney Mike Lyions said the Turlock City Council passed a resolution in April that asks voters to decide in November 2014 whether the city should adopt district elections.
The Ceres council decided to hold a second study session on the matter in roughly three months. At that session, council members will look at such issues as the cost of hiring a consultant to create council district boundaries. Lyions said the mayor would continue to be elected by all of the city's voters.
Ceres is looking at placing a district elections ordinance on the November 2015 ballot. The city would not switch unless a majority of voters approve the ordinance.
Though council members moved forward on district elections, they said they represented all of Ceres' residents. They also were concerned that with district elections it could take just a few hundred votes for a candidate to gain a council seat.
Councilman Eric Ingwerson did not attend Monday's study session.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.