Districting panel lacks south city voice

Modesto voters overwhelmingly supported a February ballot measure to split the city into six districts for City Council elections, a move that would ensure that each part of town has a voice in government.

But the people who likely will decide how to divide the city into districts are from the same area of town where the present council members live.

Eight of the nine of people who likely will sit on the council's boundary-drawing commission live east of McHenry Avenue, which roughly divides the city's population in half.

Only one proposed member lives west of Highway 99. She is Helen White, a community acti-vist who works with the West Modesto- King-Kennedy Collaborative.

The City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on appointing people to the commission. Mayor Jim Ridenour recommended nine people to fill the positions, but the council can reject his choices.

Ridenour said his recommendations are diverse in other ways. Several have been active in civil rights groups. All have a record of getting involved in community organizations.

"If people want to get involved, we give everybody a chance," he said.

White was the only person from west Modesto to apply for the commission. None of the 19 applicants was from south Modesto.

Those were the two neighborhoods at the center of two recent civil rights lawsuits against Modesto and Stanislaus County that claimed the government agencies were neglecting areas of town where Latinos make up a majority of residents.

One of the lawsuits demanded the city adopt district elections to improve the odds for Latinos running for office. Just two Latinos have won City Council seats in the city's history. Dave Lopez, a current council member and district elections opponent, is one of them.

Solange Goncalves Altman, a district elections supporter who helped write the February ballot measure, said she would have liked to see more west and south Modesto residents apply for the commission. Nonetheless, she said the mayor's choices represent a good cross-section of interests.

"The most important consideration was trying to get people who would be community minded and nonpartisan," she said.

The district elections ballot measure included several guidelines that limited Ridenour's choices.

He was encouraged to appoint a retired judge, a former civil grand jury member, a member of a civil rights organization, a member of a taxpayer advo-cacy group and someone from a nonpartisan political group. Ridenour has nominated someone for each of those roles.

People who want to run for office one day couldn't apply.

People who lobby the council for business interests couldn't serve on the commission.

Ridenour expects the commission to begin meeting in earnest in June. It must draw district boundaries for the 2009 City Council elections and have them finished in time for people to decide whether to run.

The mayor said the city likely will hire a consultant to help the commission draw fair boundaries with an equal number of residents.

"If people voted for districts, let's do it right," he said.

Councilman Garrad Marsh, a district elections supporter, said he supported the mayor's choices. He questioned some of Ridenour's first choices, which went to the council a week ago but were not approved.

Ridenour revised that list, changing four of the nominees.

"It's a good mix," Marsh said, adding that some politically active people in south and west Modesto passed on the commission because of their plans to run for office.

The Modesto City Council meets 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 aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.