Panel narrows district choices

West Modesto and south Modesto want more political muscle from the city's move to district elections.

The question is whether they're stronger as a single district or as separate components of different City Council seats.

That dilemma is one of the main sticking points facing a group of volunteers who are closing in on where they want to place the council boundaries.

Their recommendation holds sway because elected council members can't adjust the lines set by the district-drawing commission.

A push to split west Modesto from south Mo- desto emerged at a public meeting last month when community activist Salvador Vera told the commissioners that the neighborhoods would benefit from having two voices on the council.

Other residents carried the theme. Three of the four maps the commission chose as finalists separate the two neighborhoods.

They're expected to narrow the field further at a Tuesday meeting at City Hall.

West and south Modesto share a lot of common ground. They both sit west of Highway 99, struggle with blight and contain Modesto's only voting precincts with majorities of Latinos.

They're divided by the Tuolumne River, and have some different needs, too. South Modesto, for example, lacks the parks and neighborhood centers that benefit west Modesto.

Combined, the two neighborhoods have just about the right number of residents to make up a council district. Each one is supposed to have about 34,300 residents.

Plans that separate the districts would dilute the Latino vote and link them with the La Loma or college neighborhoods. La Loma and the college area have some of the city's densest precincts of regular voters.

Maggie Mejia, a south Modesto resident who addressed the boundary-drawing commission, said she would prefer to separate south Modesto from west Modesto if the neighborhoods had enough residents to make up their own districts.

Because they don't, she said, she'd like to see a single district created that would launch a council candidate who would advocate for the neighborhoods.

"There is a lot of poverty in south Modesto; there is a lot of poverty in west Modesto," Mejia said. "You need someone to run who is willing to look at the entire picture."

Two tries for district elections

In February, Modesto voters approved a ballot measure that called for district elections. They rejected a similar measure in 2001.

Since the first vote on district elections, Vera and two other Latino residents sued Modesto to force reforms that would benefit Latino neighborhoods in south and west Modesto. The city sought to scuttle the lawsuit by arguing it was uncon- stitutional, but a federal court sided with the residents.

Only two Latinos have won City Council races in Modesto. Balvino Irizarry won in 1987; Dave Lopez, the first councilman of Mexican descent, won his election in December.

Members of the district-drawing commission also have not decided where to place the airport neighborhood, which is south of Yosemite Boulevard and the La Loma neighborhood.

A few maps combine the airport neighborhood with south Modesto; others link it with La Loma because of their shared interest in Yosemite Boulevard.

"There are not enough people in south Modesto to stand alone or for west Modesto to stand alone or the airport to stand alone and nobody appears to want to combine the three to consolidate a vote," Hank Pollard, a member of the district-drawing commission, said.

Ryan Swehla, a commercial real estate consultant, drew a district map that combined south Modesto, west Modesto and the airport. His is one of the four maps the commissioners favored at a meeting earlier this month.

Swehla said it's up to west and south Modesto residents to determine whether they want to share a district.

"The biggest question is how south Modesto and west Mo- desto see themselves identitywise," he said. "Obviously, if they're joined together as one district, there's lots more clout because you have a single representative. But at the same time, if you split south and west Mo-desto, you have more representation even if it's a minority view."

For the city as a whole, the commission appears to support boundaries that use Briggsmore Avenue as a dividing line, with three districts north of the road and three south of it.

That reflects Briggsmore as a geographic barrier that separates neighborhoods, and it generally keeps the voting districts in line with school attendance zones.

Commission members say they're pleased they've received about two dozen suggested maps from residents. It's still accepting them at drawmodesto.org.

"There are some definite opinions about who wants to be where and who does not want to be where," said retired Judge Hugh Rose III, the commission's chairman. "It'll all come out in the end."

The commission wants to have a firm recommendation for a final map by September. It plans to hold more community meetings for people to sound off on that map, and then it will submit a proposal to the council. The council can reject the map and send it back to Rose's commission, but it can't tinker with the lines.

The district-drawing commission meets at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 2001 at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

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

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