Modesto voters want a change in how they elect their City Council members.
That's the message of a nonbinding measure voters were supporting Tuesday, setting the stage for the city to adopt district elections for council races next year.
Voters were backing Measure I, which asked whether they would favor replacing at-large council races with districts, by a 13 percent margin.
On a second part of the district elections question, voters were rejecting an option that would have created two additional citywide council seats.
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Instead, voters were supporting a "pure" system that would create six separate council districts. The mayor would continue to be elected in a citywide race under that method.
"It's exciting, because there was so much work we did, and we were afraid the community didn't care about this," said Solange Altman, a member of the Modesto Charter Review Committee that suggested the city move to district elections. "We thought the community was ready for it."
The City Council tonight is expected to vote on placing a binding district elections measure on the February ballot. If that measure passes, districts would be in place before the 2009 council races.
The council could choose to delay the measure until the June election, depending on whether members want to wait for a certified tally from Stanislaus County Registrar Lee Lundri-gan.
A switch from 2001 vote
Tuesday's vote reverses the drubbing district elections took in 2001, when voters overwhelmingly rejected them.
Since then, district elections gained traction on two fronts:
Three Latino residents sued the city in 2004 under the California Voting Rights Act. They want the city to implement district elections to boost the odds for minority candidates.
Modesto lost its attempt to squash the lawsuit by overturning the voting law. A trial could take place next year and could result in a Stanislaus County Superior Court judge ordering the city to create district races if the Latinos can demonstrate that racially polarized voting characterizes Modesto elections.
The City Council last year appointed Altman and 10 other volunteers to review Modesto's charter. The group unanimously agreed that Modesto should adopt district elections because its growth has made it so large that it's difficult for someone to run for office without raising tens of thousands of dollars, and because residents want a sense that they know who represents them on the council.
"It's about opening up the process to lots of people," said Sandra Lucas, a member of the Charter Review Committee.
The committee's findings prompted the council to write the measures voters saw Tuesday.
Five council members live east of McHenry Avenue, which roughly divides the city in half. All seven live east of Highway 99.
All but two California cities with populations greater than Modesto's 207,000 residents use district elections to choose council members.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.