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Council says no to Sabatino

Modesto's most fervent advocates for district elections couldn't persuade the City Council on Tuesday to speed up its timeline for political reform.

The council for a second time rejected former Mayor Carmen Sabatino's call for a November ballot measure to swap the city's at-large council races with a format that requires candidates to live in specific districts.

Instead, the council stuck with a decision it made two weeks ago to put an advisory measure on that ballot, giving voters a chance to show whether they favor one of two styles of district campaigns.

The method of election reform that received the most support would be subject to a second, binding vote in February.

But even though the council's decision to pursue the advisory election gave a sense of déjà vu, the representatives allowed themselves one more chance to adjust that decision at their July 24 meeting.

That's when they're scheduled to turn the yellow light they put on the advisory election into a green one by adopting final language for the ballot.

Their vote drew criticism from Sabatino and others, who charged the council was wasting time and money with the advisory ballot.

"We're here and you're here because you've become co-conspirators," Saba-tino told the council, saying its members chose the advisory method to "befuddle" voters. "You're here to kill district elections."

Councilman Garrad Marsh countered that it doesn't matter whether voters see an advisory measure or a binding one in November because the first campaigns affected by the change won't take place until 2009.

"I'm so surprised with the individual testimony tainted with such gloom and doom," Councilwoman Janice Keating said. "It appears the advisory vote will open our elections. It's exactly what everybody has been asking for."

Long and heated meeting

The meeting was an unusually lengthy one, including repeated criticism of council spending by taxpayer watchdog Dave Thomas and a request from an advocacy group to make Modesto an immigrant sanctuary.

The council approved the $400,500 purchase of new police cars and raises for certain city employees that Thomas questioned.

The council shot down the plea to make the city an immigrant sanctuary, saying those requests belong in front of federal officials.

The meeting was a heated one with plenty of finger-pointing.

Sabatino said the path to victory in Modesto elections runs through land-use attorney George Petrulakis.

Petrulakis led the volunteer Charter Review Committee, which advised the council on election reform. He supported Mayor Jim Ridenour's election in 2003.

"If you want to run for City Council, if you want to run for mayor, you report to George Petrulakis," Sabatino said, suggesting that development interests can carry local elections.

Petrulakis laughed at Sabatino's remark. Councilman Will O'Bryant joked about it later in the meeting, saying from the dais, "George, can I run for re-election?"

Petrulakis said the charter committee supported the advisory measure as a means to give people time to study the options.

"This is very serious for the city of Modesto," charter committee member Sandra Lucas said. "We need to get the population involved and that's why we want an advisory vote."

Explain the systems to voters

Some district election supporters appeared to support the idea of a public outreach campaign ahead of the advisory vote.

One of them was Salvador Vera, one of three Modesto Latinos suing the city under a 2001 state voting law that allows minorities to use the courts to press for election reforms.

"I think that it's smart that we give general folks of the city a chance to be educated," he said, though he cautioned that outreach should take place in neighborhoods, not just through the media.

As proposed Tuesday, the advisory ballot language the council is expected to approve in two weeks reads:

"1. Should Modesto change its system of electing City Council members?

"2. If the city of Modesto were to change its system of electing City Council members, which of the following systems would you prefer? The mayor would remain elected by all voters in the city in either option.

"2a. 'By District' system: Six districts where candidates must live in the district they wish to represent and the voters who live in the district vote on who will represent the district.

"2b. 'Mixed' system: Two at-large council seats, where candidates may live anywhere in the city and are voted on by all city voters, and six districts, where candidates must live in the district they wish to represent and the voters who live in the district vote on who will represent the district."

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

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