The Modesto City Council on Tuesday agreed to cut to the point on former Mayor Carmen Sabatino's initiative to replace at-large council elections with district races.
The council set up a Feb. 6 vote on whether it would put Sabatino's initiative on the November ballot.
Sabatino and a committee he leads — Modestans for Fair District Elections — will not have to gather signatures for their initiative if the council puts the plan before voters.
The committee's proposal is one of three courses that could lead to district elections.
Another is a 2004 lawsuit, known as Sanchez vs. Modesto, brought by three Latinos who claim Modesto's at-large council races dilute minority votes. The third is a review of Modesto's election laws.
A state court sided with the Latino group in December, but the council this month voted to appeal that decision to the California Supreme Court. Council members contend that they are defending the city's charter, which requires a citywide vote to change election laws.
Their appeal prompted Sabatino, taxpayer watchdog Dave Thomas, Latino activist Miguel Donoso and attorney Armando Flores to accuse council members at recent public meetings of protecting their political interests.
"I think we need to address this," said Councilman Bob Dunbar, who urged his colleagues to vote on Sabatino's proposal at their next meeting.
The council voted 6-0 to address Sabatino's request; Mayor Jim Ridenour was absent.
Sabatino's proposal was on the council's agenda, but it was marked as a discussion item, meaning the council could not act on it Tuesday.
Sabatino said he expects the council to reject his proposal next month. He said the committee plans to begin gathering signatures next week.
"It seems unlikely that this council is going to want to vote for district elections when they've voted to fight this all the way to the Supreme Court," he said.
Asked why he would request the vote if he anticipated a denial, Sabatino said, "I want them on record."
Initiative, lawsuit, charter review all out there
In 2001, Modesto voters rejected a measure, by a 66 percent to 33 percent margin, that would have implemented district elections.
Some supporters view district elections as a way to bring more ethnic diversity to the council; others, such as Sabatino, have focused on a need to level the playing field for council candidates who can't afford to run a citywide race.
Modesto has spent $733,215 to fight the Sanchez lawsuit, City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood told The Bee on Tuesday in response to a public records request.
The council is waiting for a report from the city's Charter Review Committee, which is analyzing Modesto's election laws. The committee has two meetings scheduled for February and March to discuss district elections.
Dunbar said he called for a vote on Sabatino's request to clear up an alleged procedural mistake that sent his proposal to the council's discussion calendar.
Dunbar said it does not reflect his stance on district elections. Like most council members, Dunbar said, he sees benefits and drawbacks to district races. Large valley cities such as Stockton and Bakersfield have district elections; most others do not.
"We do have a lot of things in the works, and perhaps all these things can come together so we have one strong direction," said Dunbar, referring to the Sabatino initiative, the lawsuit and the charter review discussions.
Council to look into outside election spending
In other business, the council voted to investigate whether Modesto can require outside political committees to report to the city clerk's office their spending on local elections.
As is, those groups file spending reports twice a year with the secretary of state. Modesto political committees and candidates report their spending to the city clerk's office twice in the run-up to elections.
Councilwoman Janice Keating grew concerned about disclosure requirements for statewide independent expenditure committees after a Southern California Republican group weighed in on her November race against former state Sen. Dick Monteith for a seat on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.
The California Republican Assembly sent a mailer unfavorably linking Monteith, a Republican, to former Democratic Gov. Davis. The group did not contact Keating before mailing the fliers. That group and others like it are prohibited from coordinating their campaigns with candidates who might benefit from them.
Keating lost her race by 16 votes. She said she wants outside political groups to file spending reports in Modesto to bring greater transparency to local elections.
"I don't wish to stop their activity," she said. "I'd just like to know who they are."
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at 578-2366 or email@example.com.