Riverbank takes step toward by-district council elections

Voters in November 2015 will decide whether City Council members should be elected by geographic districts, a change meant to improve the odds for minority candidates.

A map splitting Riverbank into multiple districts, yet to be created, also will appear on that ballot.

“We need to make sure we do what’s right for Riverbank,” Councilwoman Leanne Jones Cruz said Tuesday before a unanimous vote to move toward district elections. “I think the writing’s on the wall.”

Latinos make up 52 percent of the city population but only about 42 percent of registered voters. No current council member is Latino, although Cruz, Cal Campbell and Darlene Barber-Martinez, who is black, all are married to Latinos. The city’s immediate past mayor, Virginia Madueño, is Latina.

“I strongly believe we need to go to districts,” said Councilwoman Jeanine Tucker. Campbell said, “It’s the best thing we can do right now for the city.”

The change was prompted by a warning from the Latino Community Roundtable, the same group that has persuaded Modesto, Turlock and several school districts to abandon at-large elections. Group President Maggie Mejia told Riverbank leaders that the roundtable never envisioned suing but hopes to spark change before others bring lawsuits.

The California Voting Rights Act, passed in 2002 and implemented in 2006, enables such lawsuits. To avoid one threatened by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, Merced’s council has agreed to pay the group $43,000 in attorney fees. Turlock last month selected a map with proposed districts to face voters in November.

Although Turlock is a year ahead of Riverbank in the process, the first council elections by district for both cities likely would occur in 2016.

Riverbank’s process will be guided by National Demographics Corp., the same firm that helped Modesto make the switch and is assisting Turlock and Los Banos. Company President Douglas Johnson on Tuesday asked that people throughout Riverbank suggest how the city might be split into districts while keeping neighborhoods intact.

The law prohibits drawing districts based only on race, Johnson said. “Whatever ties a neighborhood together is what matters,” he said.