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Modesto to weigh district elections

Modesto voters will see a multiple-choice question on their November ballot that could determine how they select City Council members in future elections.

The council Tuesday voted to ask residents whether they'd support replacing Modesto's citywide elections with one of two types of district campaigns that require candidates to live in specific neighborhoods.

Results of that advisory vote in November would shape a subsequent election in 2008 in which Mo-destans would have a chance to implement one of the varieties of district campaigns.

The council's vote disappointed some activists who wanted to see a clear measure calling for district elections on the November ballot.

"If it continues to go on month by month we're not going to get this done by 2009," said Nancy Hinton, 49, a retired teacher.

But council members said they supported the proposal for the advisory vote because it would give people a chance to study the election formats and make an informed choice.

"I want to leave it to the people," Mayor Jim Ridenour said. "Let's get the people out and find out what they want."

He and his colleagues emphasized it wouldn't matter whether voters adopt district elections in 2007 or 2008 because the first campaigns affected by the effort won't take place until 2009.

The council adopted the plan following a recommendation from the city's Charter Review Committee, a volunteer group that analyzed government reforms over the past year.

Members of that committee agreed it was time for Modesto to move to a district election format because of the city's growing population. Modesto is among the four largest cities in the state that do not use district elections.

But the charter group was split on which type of district elections would best serve the city.

It asked the council to let voters show whether they prefer:

A system in which candidates for six council seats compete within six separate geographic districts.

Or, a hybrid election format in which the city would expand the council to eight members. Six seats would go to candidates from districts, while two would be reserved for citywide races.

The mayor still would be elected by a citywide vote.

The council in the past year faced strong requests for district elections from two groups.

One, led by former Mayor Carmen Sabatino, wants district races to lower the cost of campaigning and improve representation.

The other, a Latino group, is seeking district elections through the courts, arguing citywide elections dilute the power of minority voters.

Charter Committee Chairman George Petrulakis said the charter committee's proposal was not aimed at pleasing them.

"It's directed at the forgotten voters and the forgotten taxpayers that are nominally involved" with city government, he said.

The council plans to return to district elections July 10, when it will consider ways to phrase the ballot language.

In other business, the council split on whether to approve 5.5percent raises for 53 city employees who are managers or who are not represented by unions. Collectively, the raises would cost the city $418,000.

Council members Janice Keating, Will O'Bryant and Kristin Olsen voted against the raises, saying it was inappropriate to award them before the city completes negotiations with three of its unions.

Keating said the raises were too expensive. Olsen agreed, and said she opposed across-the-board raises for managers.

They were outvoted by Ridenour, along with Councilmen Bob Dunbar, Brad Hawn and Garrad Marsh.

Hawn made a motion to approve the raises as part of a four-part package that adjusted benefits for the employees, approved salary classes and allowed certain budget transfers. Marsh seconded the motion.

Keating and Olsen asked them to rescind their motion to allow them to vote on the raises separately.

Hawn declined, frustrating Keating.

Tom McCarthy, president of the Modesto City Employees Association, declined to describe the specifics of his union's negotiations, but said, "We've had offers and counteroffers, but none have been close to 5½ percent."

The union represents 440 city employees.

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com.Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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