Districts Enigma: Do voters want city to alter system?

Some of Modesto's loudest political voices demanded the city adopt district elections in the past year, arguing that they would level the playing field for first-time and minority candidates.

Now it's time to find out if the rest of the city's voters will get behind that proposition.

They didn't six years ago, roundly rejecting an initiative that would have implemented district races.

This time, supporters say, they have a clearer message.

They also benefit from a running discussion on a 3-year-old lawsuit that argues that the city should switch to district races to improve the odds for Latino candidates. Modesto has appealed that lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.

District elections "will help build our city," said Jeremiah Williams, a member of the volunteer Charter Review Committee that recommended the city pursue district elections. "It won't separate us. It will bring us together even more so."

So far, nobody is knocking on doors trying to persuade voters to cast their ballots in favor of district races.

Instead, Modesto sent neutral letters describing the options and hosted a series of sparsely attended workshops where residents could ask questions about the measures. Just 17 people attended the first four forums.

Turnout may pose a problem

City leaders expect a low voter turnout this fall with an uncontested mayoral race and no big state or national issues on the ballot. The combination of seeming lack of voter interest coupled with poor turnout could bode ill for the district elections measure, some believe.

"The silent majority still is leaning toward not having district elections," said Dave Lopez, a candidate running for the City Council's Chair 1.

The majority wasn't quiet in 2001, when a campaign unfolded to sink district elections with arguments that the switch would disrupt the council's focus on citywide concerns by making representatives home in on neighborhood issues.

That measure also suffered from an unfocused objective. Had it passed, it would have changed the dates of City Council elections, too, but it lost by a two-thirds margin.

Today, supporters say Modesto has grown so much that district campaigns make sense for the city. They say district races make representatives accountable to constituents in their neighborhoods.

For example, no one on the council's current roster lives west of Highway 99, an area characterized by unincorporated county pockets with road, drainage and water pressure problems. Five of them live east of McHenry Avenue, which divides the city roughly in half. District elections would result in candidates living farther apart.

Two questions on the ballot

Modesto voters will see two district elections measures on their ballots; both are advisory and would not change anything unless the city approves a second, binding measure sometime next year.

The first question, Measure I, asks whether voters think Modesto should adopt district elections.

The second, Measure J, offers a choice between two methods of conducting district campaigns:

A system that splits the city by population into six districts and lets people from within those neighborhoods choose their representatives.

Or a mixed system that creates the same six districts but adds two at-large council seats.

The mayor would continue to be elected by citywide votes under both options.

The Charter Review Committee sought to limit political tampering with the boundaries by putting them in the hands of a proposed nine-member independent commission with representatives drawn from many community groups.

Districts likely would have about 34,600 residents instead of the city's entire population.

Whichever method on Measure J gets the most votes is expected to appear on the ballot for a binding election in February. The winning system would take effect for Modesto's 2009 elections.

What if Measure I fails?

Council members could face a difficult choice if Measure I fails.

Several have said they ought to respect the result of the Measure I vote, but they weren't sure whether they would place a binding measure on the ballot regardless of that outcome.

"If that goes up negative, we have to find out why and go from there," Councilman Brad Hawn said.

Councilman Garrad Marsh said voters should see a final measure on district elections in 2008 no matter what happens with Measure I.

"It's an issue of quality representation," said Marsh, who added that district elections would limit the power of special interests in city campaigns and open the field to more candidates by reducing the cost of running an effective race.

He and his colleagues will have to make a call on the binding measure quickly.

The advisory election is Nov. 6, but the city must have information for the February measure to Stanislaus County Registrar Lee Lundrigan by Nov. 9.

"It's just a really tight time frame," City Clerk Jean Morris said.

In the meantime, Charter Review Committee members are discussing district elections with community service groups, such as Rotary clubs.

Carolina Bernal, director of the county Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a member of the review committee, said more effort should go into getting people to vote. She pointed to several district elections forums at El Concilio that drew big crowds over the past year as an example of the kind of activity that could spur more interest among minority communities.

"We need to let people know they have to be active and start making decisions," she said.

Format used in most big cities

Stanislaus County's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also supports district elections, branch President Wendy Byrd said.

"We believe there's a need for broad representation in the city and we believe district elections is a way to that," she said.

Nearly every California city with a population greater than Modesto's 207,000 residents uses a variation of district campaigns.

Modesto taxpayer advocates likely will get behind district elections in some form. Several of them worked with former Mayor Carmen Sabatino on a district elections initiative he wanted to place on the ballot this fall, though Sabatino has criticized the advisory votes as a waste of taxpayer money.

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