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Council rejects election ruling

The Modesto City Council on Tuesday voted to fight a state court's ruling that would have allowed a Latino group to sue the city for election reforms.

The council's decision sends to the state Supreme Court a 2004 lawsuit claiming that Modesto's citywide elections diminish the power of minority voters.

The city also is challenging the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, which allows people to go to court to demand reforms if they can show that "racially polarized" elections dilute minority votes.

Mayor Jim Ridenour said the decision was based on specific information in the 2004 lawsuit, which three Latinos filed with the help of a San Francisco civil rights group.

He said it was not an indication about the council's stance on district elections, which minority advocates favor as a method to get more diversity on the all-white council.

He declined to elaborate further.

District election supporters criticized the council's vote.

"It almost looks like you're defending your jobs because if we had district elections, most of you wouldn't be sitting there," taxpayer watchdog Dave Thomas told the council.

None of Modesto's seven council members lives west of Highway 99. All but two live east of McHenry Avenue.

Latinos make up nearly 30 percent of the city, but only one has been elected to the council since 1911.

Miguel Donoso, a community activist, had blunt words for the council about why Latinos don't get elected.

"No. 1, we don't have the support of the developers. No. 2, the white people don't want us to be elected," he said.

In 2001, Modestans rejected a proposal to implement district elections by a margin of 66 percent to 33 percent. Some say that measure was confusing because it was tied to another proposal that would have changed the dates of city elections.

Appeal court sided with group

In December, the state's 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno sided with the Latino group that filed the 2004 lawsuit. That court's decision overturned a 2005 ruling by Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Roger M. Beauchesne, who found that the voting rights act was unconstitutional.

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood announced the decision to appeal after a closed-door session before Tuesday's council meeting. The vote was unanimous among the council members present; Councilwoman Janice Keating arrived late to the closed-door session.

In coming months, two groups are expected to weigh in again on district elections.

One discussion is taking place through the city's Charter Review Committee, an 11-person group charged with evaluating Modesto's election laws.

Former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino is leading another course toward district elections. He vowed Tuesday to gather signatures to put an initiative on the ballot in November calling for district races.

"We're going to get the signatures. We're going to get district elections on the ballot and you can squander half a million dollars to fight it in the courts," Sabatino told the council.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at 578-2366 or