South, west aim to unite in Modesto district plan

South and west Modesto residents on Tuesday endorsed City Council districts that unite their neighborhoods, arguing a shared seat would give them a stronger voice in politics.

They issued their comments to a commission drawing boundaries for next year's council elections, Modesto's first to take place by district instead of in citywide races.

That commission narrowed its preferences to two maps. One links south Modesto to west Modesto and another separates the neighborhoods.

What to do with south and west Modesto has been the commission's primary debate since it formed in May.

Those neighborhoods historically have been underrepresented in politics, share problems with blight and hold Modesto's only voting precincts with majorities of Latinos. They sit west of Highway 99 and the Tuolumne River divides them.

Each of the six council districts must contain about 34,000 residents.

Because of the population requirement, west and south Modesto must join in one district or link to other neighborhoods east of the highway and north of the river.

Rosa Jimenez of west Modesto told the commission that the neighborhoods would be better served by uniting. Otherwise, she said, they could be overshadowed by the college neighborhood in central Modesto or the La Loma neighborhood.

"If there's no economic or political power, their voters will be suppressed the way they always have," she said.

The college and La Loma neighborhoods have many more voters than south or west Modesto. A La Loma-south Modesto district, for example, would have 9,000 registered voters in the La Loma area and about 3,000 south of the river.

Those numbers convinced Denny Cruz that south Modesto would lose out if it's joined with La Loma. He's a former principal of Orville Wright Elementary School in the airport neighborhood.

"I know the La Loma people all vote," he said.

Cruz's and Jimenez's views represented a break from what the commission heard at meetings last month, when community activists argued west and south Modesto would benefit from influencing two districts instead of one.

Link means larger Latino voice

Linking south and west Modesto would create a district in which Latinos would make up 48 percent of registered voters. Separating them yields one district in which Latinos would make up 37 percent of voters, and another in which they would represent 29 percent.

Few residents from central and north Modesto have approached the district-drawing commission. However, all of the commissioners live east of the highway and north of Yosemite Boulevard.

Helen White, the only commissioner from west Modesto, died July 4. Mayor Jim Ridenour is trying to recruit someone to fill her position.

Commission Chairman Hugh Rose III plans to submit a final map to the council after Sept. 16. The commission next meets Sept. 6.

The council can return the final map to Rose's commission with comments, but elected officials can't adjust the boundaries.

The commission received more than two dozen maps from residents. It's accepting more suggestions at www.drawmodesto.org.

The two options still in the running were drawn by commercial real estate consultant Ryan Swehla and Modesto Junior College student Joel Campos.

Swehla's map is the one that links south and west Modesto. Campos keeps them separate.

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

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