Turlock takes steps toward road tax, district elections

jholland@modbee.comApril 22, 2014 

— The City Council took steps Tuesday night toward putting a road tax and district elections on the November ballot.

Council members voted 4-1 to have City Attorney Phaedra Norton rough out the proposed half-percentage-point sales tax increase for repair of Turlock streets. Councilwoman Amy Bublak, who dissented, said she did not want to add to the tax burden for residents.

The council voted 5-0 to have a consultant draw possible lines for council districts, with the goal of avoiding lawsuits from people who contend that at-large voting is unfair to minorities. The maps will go out for public review next month.

The idea for a Turlock-only road tax re-emerged after the Stanislaus Council of Governments dropped plans for a countywide measure last month, in the wake of weak polling results. Councilman Forrest White, who brought the matter back, said it could provide about $5 million a year.

“If we’re going to have a quality city, you’ve got to have something better than below-average roads,” White said.

The proposal, which would bring Turlock’s sales tax to 8.125 percent, would need at least two-thirds support from the council and voters. The council would have to decide how long the increase would be in place, and whether it would go away if a countywide measure passes.

On the issue of district elections, the council voted to have National Demographics Corp., a Glendale-based firm, look at how to split Turlock into districts. The council could vote in late May on whether to place the matter before voters. If approved, the change would be phased in with the 2016 and 2018 council elections.

The process is expected to cost up to $60,000, City Manager Roy Wasden said last month.

Forty-one of the state’s 482 cities have switched from at-large elections, mainly to avoid costly legal battles with minority advocates suing under the California Voting Rights Act. They include Modesto, which paid a $3 million settlement to plaintiffs’ attorneys after trying to get the law declared unconstitutional.

“It’s a good thing that you’re looking at this and considering this ahead of the plaintiffs’ arrival,” Douglas Johnson, the firm’s president, told the Turlock council.

The Latino Community Roundtable of Stanislaus County has led the effort to get city councils and school boards here to switch to district elections. In a letter to the Turlock council, President Maggie Mejia said the group seeks to avoid a repeat of Modesto’s battle, which sent millions of dollars to out-of-county attorneys.

“We are here to help you through the process and assist,” she wrote. “We are not here to create a division.”

National Demographics noted that 36 percent of Turlock’s residents are Latino, according to the 2010 census. In the November 2012 election, they made up 25 percent of the registered voters and 21 percent of the turnout.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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