Former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino's initiative to change the way the city elects its council representatives might get a spot on the November ballot, but he'll have to do the legwork himself.
The City Council on Tuesday declined to put his proposal before voters. Sabatino and Modestans for Fair District Elections now must gather signatures to place their measure on the ballot.
They want Modesto to replace its citywide council elections with district races that would require representatives to live in one of six areas of town.
They argue that district elections would level the playing field for council candidates who can't afford a citywide campaign and make them more accountable to neighborhood needs.
Council members said they did not necessarily oppose district races, but that they wanted more options for election reform.
One of them, Garrad Marsh, said he wanted to see district elections in place.
"I feel your proposal has merits," Marsh told Sabatino. "I don't think it's ready for prime time yet."
Marsh and his colleagues unanimously referred Sabatino's initiative to the city's Charter Review Committee, an 11-person group appointed by the council to analyze election laws, among other city charter issues. That committee is expected to release a report in June with recommendations pertaining to district elections.
Sabatino scoffed at the charter committee, saying it would work to maintain the status quo because its members were appointed by council members.
He told the council he didn't expect it to put the proposal on the ballot, but he asked, "What would hurt if tonight you put the initiative on the ballot and let the people vote?"
Councilwoman Kristin Olsen turned the question around and asked Sabatino what would be lost by waiting for the charter committee's report.
Members of that committee took offense to Sabatino's charges. They said they wanted a fair debate on district elections instead of reducing the issue to a "political football."
"I would hope for some thought and deliberation, not just opinion and invective," said George Petrulakis, committee chairman.
A third option for district races surfaced at the meeting in a closed-door session when the council discussed a 2004 lawsuit brought by three Latinos who are suing the city for election reform.
They contend that citywide elections dilute the power of minority votes. One Latino has been elected to the council in nearly 100 years, although Latinos make up nearly 30 percent of the city's population.
The council has voted to fight the lawsuit, arguing it would undermine a Modesto law that requires election reforms to win a citywide vote.
Salvador Vera, one of the Latinos suing the city, spoke at the meeting and offered to serve as host of a charter committee meeting in west Modesto.
"A lot of us have solutions," Vera, 33, said. "A lot of us have ideas, and many of us are willing to sit down and dialogue in a good way."
The committee held meetings all over the city during the fall, but most of them were sparsely attended. It plans to discuss district elections Feb. 20 and March 12 at Tenth Street Place.
Modesto voters in 2001 rejected a measure that would have installed district elections. Some say that initiative was too confusing because it tied district races to a change in election dates.
Sabatino says the new initiative is simpler. It would divide the city in contiguous districts with roughly 33,000 people in each. He said ensuring minority representation is not a factor in the plan.
"This has nothing to do with whether you are Hispanic, Vietnamese, black — all this has to do (with) is we're going to give you a level playing ground," he said.
He wasn't the only one at the meeting who was impatient to see the initiative get on the ballot. Attorney Michael Garcia, who frequently advocates for west Modesto concerns at council meetings, scolded representatives for waiting on the measure.
"To the disenfranchised, what 'wait' means is 'never,'" he said.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at 578-2366 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
AT A GLANCE
In other business, the Modesto City Council voted to: