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December 7, 2008

Dec. 7 followup: Council to see final district elections plan Tuesday

A plan turning Modesto's electioneering on its head will finally go before the people it directly affects on Tuesday.

City Council members, never having been elected by district, will consider boundaries and corresponding election years proposed by an independent panel.

The plan is perhaps the most significant change in modern Modesto politics. It was set in motion when voters overwhelmingly embraced reform measures, including district elections, in February.

Despite huge implications -- three of the six council members live in one of six districts to be created, for example -- Tuesday's hearing may generate few sparks.

The two most senior council members, who also are those with the most to lose, told The Bee they won't argue with a recipe putting them out of office next year.

"That's the way they've chosen to do it and I have no problem with it," said Councilman Will O'Bryant, who would leave with Councilwoman Janice Keating in late 2009. Neither could run again before 2011.

"Progress is painful," Keating said Friday. "Sometimes these things happen when you change an entire system."

The old system required candidates to target a council "seat," with no significance outside of the election.

Talk of reform swirled for years before a lawsuit brought by people wanting better minority representation in west and south

Modesto cost the city a $3 million settlement.

An independent commission, headed by retired Judge Hugh Rose III with help from a consultant, in October finalized district boundaries and selected three districts for election in 2009 and the other three in 2011.

City Council races will be every two years for three of the council's six members. Terms are for four years.

The mayor's office will continue to be a citywide election. The next will be in 2011 when term limits will force out Jim Ridenour.

"The transition is fairly complex," said commission consultant Doug Johnson of Glendale-based National Demographics Corp. Rules prevent council members from tweaking the commission's plan Tuesday, though they could order commissioners to reconvene to consider council comments.

Two will term out in '11

Term limits for Councilmen Garrad Marsh and Brad Hawn coincide with the election years chosen for the districts in which they live, so they'll simply leave when they're termed out in 2011, though either could run for mayor then.

Councilwoman Kristin Olsen's first term ends next year, coinciding with her area's election, so she could run again.

Two other districts, including the area that sued, were designated for 2009 elections and have no incumbent.

The area crowded with three council members, District 3, might not provoke a fight -- at least not right away. Keating will leave next year and Hawn will term out in 2011, when Councilman Dave Lopez's first term ends. Hawn would be prevented from running before 2015, but Keating could challenge Lopez in 2011. Or either could run for mayor that year.

"We'll see what happens in a couple of years," Keating said.

Keeping his options open

O'Bryant, 65 and retired, is keeping his options open, too.

"I would never say I won't run again," he said. "I can say there have been unrepresented groups of people in this city, and hopefully this will get (potential candidates) off their duff and they'll run now."

The people who created Modesto's plan are on the second independent district-drawing panel in California, Johnson said. The first was in San Diego. All others are controlled by the agencies they affect, he said.

"The Modesto council has stayed completely out of this," Johnson said. "I was surprised to the degree to which they've respected the independence of the committee. We haven't had commentary, or even questions or suggestions, that I'm aware of."

Tuesday's Modesto City Council meeting is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.

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