Like many other local governing bodies around the state acting under the threat or reality of a lawsuit, the Ceres City Council voted unanimously this week to proceed with the steps necessary to make the switch to district elections.
Interest groups contend at-large voting systems put minorities at a disadvantage in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
That same law requires cities to put the issue on the ballot before making the shift to district elections, but doesn’t shield a city from a lawsuit if the voters strike it down.
“Right now, cities are in this Catch-22 where they have to put it on the ballot. But if you vote it down, that election is polarized, you’ve just created more evidence against yourself,” said Doug Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corp., the company hired by the city to draw up district lines.
“Only California law can find a way to have the taxpayers spend $60,000 to $80,000, take it to them, and if they choose that they don’t want to do it, they can be forced to do it anyway,” Mayor Chris Vierra said at the meeting. “District elections – so there is an equal voice, yet the people don’t want it.”
The city estimates it will pay $30,000 for Johnson’s services. Vierra said after the meeting that he’s heard estimates from other cities of closer to $60,000 after factoring in election costs.
Although lobbyists and lawyers are working to eliminate the general election requirement, it’s still part of the process of transitioning to district elections.
Johnson said two California cities – Visalia in Tulare County and Highland in San Bernardino County – have seen voters say no to district elections. In Visalia, a judge ordered the city into districts anyway. Highland is negotiating a stipulated judgment with the plaintiffs, but the judge will order the districts in place if no agreement is made, Johnson said.
No local agencies have prevailed in a lawsuit brought under the California Voting Rights Act in regard to district elections.
Modesto moved to district elections in 2008 after losing a lawsuit brought by a San Francisco civil rights law firm. The city paid a $3 million settlement and spent $1.4 million fighting the case. Soon after, the Ceres Unified School District put up no fight when the same law firm sent a warning letter.
Ceres hasn’t been sued, but it received a letter of warning from the Latino Community Roundtable, as did every other Stanislaus County city and school district that hasn’t transitioned to district election.
Patterson and Oakdale have budgeted money to address the issue but have not started the process.
Turlock voters in November approved district elections. Ceres plans to put a measure on the ballot in November, and Riverbank is considering doing the same this year or next.
Riverbank, further along in the process than Ceres, is considering eight voting district options. A public meeting to discuss those options is being held Saturday.
Johnson is expected to return to the Ceres City Council with district boundary options at its March 23 meeting. The city tentatively has scheduled public meetings for March 31 and April 2.
Riverbank District Election Forum
When: Saturday, 10 a.m. to noon
Where: Riverbank Teen Center, 3600 Santa Fe St., Suite A
More information: (209) 863-7198