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Sabatino alters timeline in district elections push

Modesto voters in November might see a pitch to overhaul City Council elections, but it won't be the initiative carried by former Mayor Carmen Sabatino.

Sabatino on Monday revised the initiative he wrote to replace Modesto's citywide council races with district elections, a change that would require candidates to live in one of six neighborhoods.

Sabatino earlier this month asked the council to place the initiative on the November ballot. The council declined and Sabatino vowed to gather signatures to force the measure onto the ballot.

He said he still plans to get the proposal before voters but probably not until 2008. The measure would take effect in 2009.

Sabatino is part of Modestans for Fair District Elections, a committee whose members include taxpayer and minority advocates.

The group altered its original proposal in two ways:

It extended a candidate residency requirement from 30 days to 100 days.

It tweaked a requirement that the city clerk draw district boundaries by mandating that judges should sign off on the maps.

The initiative proposal is one of three tracks that could lead to district elections.

Another is the Charter Review Committee, an 11-member group appointed by the City Council to recommend improvements to Modesto government.

The third is a 2004 lawsuit against the city brought by three Latino residents. Their case is headed to the state Supreme Court, which is expected to decide whether the residents can sue the city for political reform under the state's Voting Rights Act.

John McDermott, a private attorney representing the city in that case, said the Supreme Court has not set a date for the lawsuit.

The charter committee is expected to discuss district elections March 12 in City Hall. It is writing a report due early this summer that could influence whether the council places a district election proposal on the November ballot.

Sabatino has criticized the charter committee as too closely aligned with the council. He said he plans to pursue his initiative despite the charter talks.

"If we don't like it (the charter committee's recommendation), we still have our election," he said.

George Petrulakis, chairman of the charter committee, said Sabatino's decision to push for an initiative at a later date wouldn't change the group's discussions.

"Carmen's group has made some very salient contributions to the process, so I think the committee is taking those into account and will continue to do that," Petrulakis said.

Modesto voters in 2001 rejected an initiative that would have implemented district elections.

District election supporters contend they would level the playing field for candidates who usually can't win a citywide campaign.

Opponents say district races might shift the council's attention from citywide issues to neighborhood spats.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.


UP FOR DISCUSSION

The Charter Review Committee plans to discuss district elections at 5:30 p.m. March 12 at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.; at 7:15 p.m. Marc h13 at Orville Wright Elementary School, 1602 Monterey Ave.; and at 7:15 p.m. March 14 at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center, 601 N. Martin Luther King Drive. All locations are in Modesto.

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