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City panel's e-mails subject of battle

Modesto attorney George Petrulakis signed up for the city's Charter Review Committee to advise elected officials on possible political reform.

But City Council members aren't the only ones who will get a peek at Petrulakis' findings — or the background work he put into writing the committee's report.

E-mails sent by him and his nine colleagues are headed to court, where they could influence a voting rights lawsuit filed against the city by a Latino group that wants to change the way council members are elected.

Robert Rubin, a San Francisco civil rights attorney representing the Modesto Latino residents, in April requested that the city retain any e-mails that address election reform, including those sent by the private individuals on the charter committee.

"They are making recommendations to the City Council," Rubin said. "So to the extent that those are concerns that come before the City Council, it's certainly relevant to the case."

Petrulakis called Rubin's request "an attempt to intimidate Modesto."

He said it delayed the committee's work by about a month while he and his assistants gathered a year's worth of e-mails.

'Chilling effect' on participation?

"It was disappointing for the delay it caused," Petrulakis said. "I think it's going to have a chilling effect on people wanting to serve on public commissions."

John McDermott, the private attorney representing Modesto in the voting case, said he collected the e-mails but has not submitted them to Rubin.

"It's not necessarily clear yet whether they will need to be reviewed and turned over," McDermott said.

The city is trying to strike down the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, the law Rubin's clients are using to demand election reforms. It allows minorities to use the judicial system to pursue election changes if they can demonstrate that "racially polarized" systems dilute their power at the polls.

Modesto is taking its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, after two decisions by state courts that sided with the Latino residents and upheld the voting law.

Rubin said the charter e-mails would become necessary in a later phase of the trial, not the part that could be considered by the high court.

Instead, the charter e-mails would become relevant if the Supreme Court upholds the voting rights law. That decision would send the case back to Stanislaus County Superior Court, where Rubin would try to persuade a jury that Modesto's at-large council elections effectively disenfranchise minority voters.

Petrulakis is expected to present an interim report on the charter committee's progress at a council meeting today at 5:30 p.m. in the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

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