Former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming a voter education program describing a November ballot measure was a ploy to undercut a campaign for district elections.
Sabatino contends that the City Council aimed to confuse voters about district elections when it placed a two-part advisory measure on the ballot.
He further argues that a letter the city mailed to voters called "Which Way Modesto?" was intended to advance the council's "political preference in the upcoming ballot measure concerning said district elections."
"They want the confusion to be so great that people say, 'I'm not going to vote if I don't know what's going on,' " Sabatino said.
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He wants a judge in Stanislaus County Superior Court to declare that the city violated a government code that prohibits elected officials from using public money for campaign activities. He's not asking that the election be stopped, but he wants an injunction barring the city from spending more on the measure.
"This is an appropriate expense, trying to get as much information out to voters as possible," City Attorney Susan Alcala Wood said.
Sabatino announced the lawsuit on his radio program, saying he was skeptical the council would support district elections because its members have, for three years, fought a lawsuit that would create such a system to level the political playing field for minority candidates.
Doug Johnson, the city's consultant on the district elections measures, said Modesto's outreach efforts have ended.
The former mayor in February asked the council to put a measure on the ballot that would have replaced citywide council races with six district campaigns requiring that candidates live in separate neighborhoods.
The council rejected his request, saying it was awaiting a report from an 11-member volunteer group it appointed to review the city's charter.
In June, the council voted to support a recommendation from the Charter Review Committee calling for a two-pronged approach on adopting district elections.
The first step is expected to take place Nov. 6, when voters will see two advisory questions asking if they support district elections, and if so, which form of district elections they favor.
The next step is designed to appear before voters next year, when the city crafts a binding measure that would implement the method that gains the most support in the advisory vote.
One option is similar to Sabatino's plan; the other creates six districts but adds two citywide council seats.
Council members agreed to spend about $48,500 on a voter education program that included the mailer and workshops that took place over the past two months.
"It's not political, it's informational," Charter Review Committee member Sandra Lucas said of the education campaign.
"Carmen's two-page lawsuit is a carnival sideshow," said George Petrulakis, chairman of the Charter Review Committee. "Hopefully, voters will focus on the important issue of how we elect council members and register their opinions through the ballot box."
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2366.