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District-drawing committee hears from firm that sued city

Eight people drawing boundaries for next year's Modesto City Council elections met on the north side of town Tuesday night, but they spent most of their time deliberating how to get political representation for south and west Modesto.

For the first time, the district-drawing committee heard from a representative from the San Francisco lawyers' group that sued the city in 2004 to urge election reforms that would benefit under- represented Latinos in south and west Modesto.

Attorney Charles Forster suggested the committee consider how to get the highest possible concentration of Latino voters into a single district. Doing otherwise could open the city to a lawsuit under the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities.

"It's up to the community to decide," Forster said. "There's no threat of a lawsuit."

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights succeeded in its lawsuit against Modesto, though the city adopted district elections through a February ballot measure instead of a judge's order.

The result of the Modesto case strengthened the California Voting Rights Act, a state law that makes it easier for minorities to sue for election reforms. Modesto paid $3 million to settle the case when it failed to overturn the state voting law.

Forster's statement struck a chord with members of the district-drawing committee. The committee has been holding community meetings since June, and it collected a split in opinions among Latino residents from south and west Modesto.

Some wanted to combine their neighborhoods into a council district that would contain a strong concentration of Latino voters. They'd make up just shy of 50 percent of the registered voters in a district that links west Modesto with south Modesto.

Other south and west Modesto residents have said they'd prefer to have their neighborhoods in separate districts. That option dilutes the concentration of Latino voters, but Latinos would make up a sizable minority in two districts.

Committee members said they're trying to follow the will of the residents in the neighborhoods.

"At some point you have to come back and listen to the community, and if it opens us up to a lawsuit, we have to let the chips fall where they may," Larry Salinas, the committee's vice chairman said.

The commission has two meetings scheduled next month. It could select a map at its Oct. 7 meeting, commission chairman Hugh Rose III said.

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

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