Election swap has shakeup potential

A proposal to swap Modesto's at-large City Council elections with district races could put a gap in Kristin Olsen's political plans.

The councilwoman's term expires in 2009, the first year that Modesto would choose council members by district if Measure N passes next month.

It's possible that the measure could lead to district boundaries that would prevent Ol-sen from running to keep her seat when her term ends or push her into a race with another incumbent.

Olsen has not endorsed the pro- posal, but she said, "It's time for Modesto to change the way we elect council members. If that means I have to sacrifice my seat for a time, so be it."

The vote on Measure N follows more than a year of wrangling over whether Modesto should institute district elections for council races.

Some of the discussions took place in court, where three Latino residents are suing Modesto under the California Voting Rights Act. They contend that at-large elections disenfranchise minority voters.

Their case could become moot if Measure N passes, though Modesto still would be on the hook for their legal bills because of the city's unsuccessful attempt to overturn the state voting law.

Supporters want district races because they cut the cost of campaigning for first-time and minority candidates who face long odds in citywide elections. The city's seven council members live east of Highway 99; five live east of McHenry Avenue, which roughly divides the city in half.

"If people really want their voices to be counted, they need to go out there and make a statement by voting," said Carolina Bernal, director of the county's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. She helped write Measure N as a member of the city's Charter Review Committee last year.

"For district elections, we have it on the ballot, so let's make it work," she said.

Opponents, such as the Modesto Chamber of Commerce and Councilman Dave Lopez, say district elections would divide the city with neighborhood interests prevailing over larger concerns.

Vote would implement change

Modesto voters rejected a measure to create district elections in 2001, but the city's growth since then created a new demand for change. Only three California cities larger than Modesto have at-large council elections. The rest have district races.

In November, Modesto voters endorsed by a 14-point margin an advisory measure that asked them whether they favored district elections. Measure N on the Feb. 5 ballot would implement the change voters supported two months ago.

"I hope people turn out and vote the same way," said Solange Altman, a member of the Charter Review Committee. "The support for district elections was pretty overwhelming in the last election, so I think the community was sending a message."

If Measure N passes, the council would be charged with creating a nine-member commission headed by a former county judge to divide the city into six districts.

The mayor would continue to be elected in citywide races.

The commission would be expected to hold public meetings for its recommendations, and it would be discouraged from setting boundaries to protect incumbents.

Aside from Olsen, Councilman Will O'Bryant and Council- woman Janice Keating face re-election in 2009. The two said they have not decided whether they will run again.

Those three council members live far enough apart that they would not necessarily live in the same council districts. However, the boundary commission could choose to designate their seats to other parts of the city.

For example, Olsen holds the council's Chair 5. The boundary commission could decide that Chair 5 should remain in east-central Modesto, where Olsen lives.

Or the commission could mark Chair 5 for another district, which means Olsen would not be able to run to keep her seat.

Terms expire in 2011 for Councilmen Brad Hawn, Lopez and Garrad Marsh. Hawn and Marsh cannot seek re-election because of term limits.

Marsh backs Measure N and Measure M, another government reform aimed at making City Hall more accountable.

He said the two measures would give Modesto a government that reflects the needs of its growing population.

"We're becoming a city and not a town anymore," he said. "It's time to reflect that in our charter."

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

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