Extreme examples just city limits apart:
The city of Modesto chose to fight a San Francisco civil rights law firm over the way officials are elected and ultimately lost, ponying up $3 million in a settlement.
The Ceres Unified School District, meanwhile, knew it would lose if it fought the same group of lawyers over the same issue. District officials sought a quick settlement and paid those same lawyers roughly $3,000.
Local governments, school boards, water districts or any other public agencies with boards or councils filled through at-large elections could ultimately face those same options: Fight, lose and pay big bucks in legal fees or capitulate as quickly as possible and minimize the damage.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
The smart ones will take the latter, based on what happened when Modesto chose the former.
"I tell people it's like the Kenny Rogers song," Ceres Unified Superintendent Walt Hanline said. " 'You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.' "
With virtually every government agency at every level facing draconian budget cuts, every dime matters. Consequently, officials can't let their egos or pride cost taxpayers just because they don't like it when some lawyers from out of town force them to change. It's well beyond the point of name calling, ambulance-chasers being one of the more common names bandied about.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, headed by attorney Robert Rubin, has enjoyed a lot of success.
In essence, Modesto's costly defeat triggered a domino effect of easy scores for Rubin. He wrote much of the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, which makes it easier for minorities to sue for voting reforms. It advocates district elections as a way of giving more minorities the opportunities to be elected to public offices.
In the valley, they've used the law to give Latinos better chances of getting elected, though it hasn't always worked that way.
Modesto's first district election in November saw Dave Geer, who is white, beat Al Nava, a Latino, in a district created for Latino representation. Geer campaigned hard in a district that, on election day, saw extremely low voter turnout.
And in Ceres Unified's first district go-round, a Latina lost her seat on the board.
No matter. Those with at-large elections are at a disadvantage when they get on Rubin's radar.
"We researched it," Hanline said. "The law is the law. If you don't like the law, then change it. But it is the law. We could have been spending textbook money on a case we were going to lose. So we decided to make lemonade out of lemons."
They did that by seeking immediate negotiations with Rubin and having a plan in hand to switch to district elections.
Turlock Unified also began the switch to district elections, and Gustine voted to do the same last month.
Anything else would have been very costly. Rubin's group sued the Hanford Union School District in 2004 and eventually forced district elections there. In fact, the Lawyers' Committee used the Hanford case to announce its formidable presence, district spokeswoman Candace McIlroy said.
"We first learned of (the lawsuit) in a press release," McIlroy said. "It was a bit of a surprise at that time. It was the first we'd heard of (the 2001 law being used that way)."
They settled the case, with Hanford paying the Lawyers' Committee $110,000 in legal fees, plus $55,000 for the district's own attorneys — money, she said, that could have been spent on the district's needs.
"It would have paid for about 1½ buses," she said.
Rubin sent a letter to the Madera Unified School District in March 2008.
"To avoid unnecessary litigation, we urge the Madera Unified School District to change its system of electing board members to an at-large to a district-based system. Please advise us within the next 30 days as to whether you are interested in discussing a voluntary change to a district system."
Madera district officials responded by asking for specifics, and Rubin's meter kept running. Ultimately, Madera agreed to switch to district elections, avoiding a court battle of Modesto proportions.
But it was still expensive: The Lawyers' Committee sent the district a bill for $1.4 million — a sum Hanford officials questioned during mediation in January. A judge will now decide how much the district must pay.
Again, it's money they could better spent on students, keeping employees, buying supplies, paving streets or maintaining campuses. Instead, a big chunk of cash will go to the attorneys.
And that should have every other at-large board or council planning for the day when it gets a letter from Rubin and the Lawyer's Committee.
They can't afford not to.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or email@example.com