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Sabatino: District system better for candidates

Modesto's at-large City Council elections stack the deck against candidates who lack ties to traditional power brokers, former Mayor Carmen Sabatino contends.

His pitch to change that system by shifting Modesto elections from citywide races to localized district contests is scheduled for a vote at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

Sabatino wants the council to put his proposal — written by a committee called Modestans for Fair District Elections — on the fall ballot.

Council members have not indicated which way they plan to vote on Sabatino's measure.

Some say they want to see a report from the city's Charter Review Committee — an 11-person group appointed by the council and charged with analyzing Modesto's election laws — before moving on district races.

"It would kind of be a slap in the face if we didn't listen to what they (charter committee members) have to say," Councilman Brad Hawn said. "I would be very surprised at this point if the charter review didn't come back and say we think you ought to consider district elections."

Recommendations from the Charter Review Committee are expected in late spring. Its proposals would need a citywide vote to take effect.

But members of Modestans for Fair District Elections say they won't wait on the charter review.

They said the council showed it wouldn't support district races last month, when its members unanimously voted to appeal a 2004 lawsuit from a Latino group seeking election reforms under the state's Voting Rights Act.

The lawsuit, known as Sanchez vs. Modesto, claims the city's at-large elections dilute the power of minority votes, resulting in a system that blocks Latinos from winning office. The city has spent $733,000 fighting the lawsuit.

"Because of the cost involved in litigation, the best vehicle at this point in time is the initiative done by the members of the community instead of the charter review, which in my view is a rubber stamp on the council," said Ramon Magana, a Modesto attorney working with Sabatino.

Council members said they voted to appeal the Sanchez lawsuit because it would overturn a city law that requires election changes to go before voters.

Sabatino stresses that he is not pushing for district elections to ensure minority representation on the council.

He said his priority is to level the playing field for all candidates by creating a system in which they could walk their neighborhoods to win a council seat instead of soliciting thousands of dollars in donations to run a citywide campaign.

"Everybody will have a better shot at getting elected in a small district," Sabatino said.

Boundaries would split city into 6 areas

The initiative would require the city clerk to create six districts with roughly equal population, splitting the city from east to west and north to south. It also would require the city to revise the boundaries after each federal census.

Council members would have to live in the districts they represent, which proponents say would improve government accountability. The mayor's seat would remain a citywide office under Sabatino's proposal.

Modesto has seven council members, all of whom live east of Highway 99. Five of them live east of McHenry Avenue, which roughly divides the city in half.

Modestans for Fair District Elections plans to begin gathering signatures to force its proposal onto the ballot if the council does not approve it.

That could set up a scenario in which voters must choose between two district election proposals in the fall if the Charter Review Committee makes a similar recommendation.

"What we created is simple, it's to the point and it gets the job done," Sabatino said. "For me, any deviation from that is an attempt by people who don't want district elections to form some kind of plan that I don't think is going to work."

Some say the push for a ballot initiative from Modestans for Fair District Elections is improving the city's discourse on voting reforms, regardless of whether it infringes on the charter review.

"I think that is an excellent starting point," said Salvador Vera, 33, one of the three Latinos suing the city in the Sanchez lawsuit.

Others, though, worry that Sabatino's group is moving too fast.

"There's a rule in politics that you never call for a vote unless you know what the vote's going to be, and I'm concerned that he might push this and people from the neighborhoods that need district elections might not come out for the vote," said Jose Rodriguez, a district elections supporter and director of Stockton-based El Concilio.

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