MODESTO BEE: CITYWIDE VOTE NO LONGER NEEDED FOR SWITCH TO DISTRICT ELECTIONS IN RIVERBANK

The march toward district elections for City Council members got a bit easier when Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed legislation allowing leaders of most cities to make the change without going to a vote of the people.

Riverbank will cancel that part of the process, previously aimed at November 2016, and will concentrate on narrowing options for splitting the city into four voting districts. People can say which of eight options they prefer at a public hearing Tuesday, and the council is expected to make a final decision Nov. 24.

 

Voting by geographic districts, as opposed to at-large elections, is supposed to help minority candidates’ chances.

Sen. Anthony Cannella carried the legislation, Senate Bill 493, with the idea of helping his hometown of Ceres. But that city, fearing a lawsuit, had scheduled a citywide vote long before Brown signed it into law; Ceres leaders left Measure D on the ballot, 66 percent of voters embraced it Tuesday and council members will be elected by district in 2017 and 2019 elections.

WE WERE TOLD BY PROPONENTS OF DISTRICTING THAT SINCE WE WERE THE NEXT LARGEST CITY IN THE COUNTY WITHOUT (VOTING) DISTRICTS, WE WERE ‘NEXT ON THE LIST.’

Tom Hallinan, Ceres city attorney

Trustees of most California school districts have power to switch from at-large to district elections without a popular vote; Modesto City Schools, operating under its own charter, is an exception, explaining why that agency initially sought voter approval before a judge scrapped Tuesday’s vote when sample ballot procedure was botched. But that’s another story.

With the new law, Cannella intended to help non-charter cities avoid the awkward possibility of voters saying “no” to district elections, essentially rejecting the California Voting Rights Act while exposing cities to lawsuits. Visalia and Highland, for example, were sued when that happened, forcing their leaders to spend lots of money on lawyers and still having to make the switch to comply with state law.

CITIES KNOW IT’S A DEAD DUCK.

Douglas Johnson, president, National Demographics Corp.

“Cities have to spend a lot of time and taxpayers’ money, and the vote didn’t matter one way or the other,” explained Jeff Macedo, Cannella’s spokesman.

The California Senate liked the idea behind Cannella’s bill, but it hit a snag in the Assembly and he reluctantly agreed to an amendment limiting relief to cities with less than 100,000, because “at least it benefits the cities who could least afford a lawsuit,” Macedo said. Cannella’s office counts 22 so-called general law cities that are too large to take advantage of SB 493.

Because Riverbank is at the right point in its process of changing to district elections, it’s likely to be the first to benefit. “I expect there will be many others following quickly,” said Douglas Johnson, president of National Demographics Corp. The firm is steering Riverbank’s change and has helped numerous other cities and school districts.

Riverbank has held several town hall meetings to gather input on its eight options, heading toward a Nov. 24 decision. Each would divide the city into four districts, with one future council member coming from each and the mayor continuing to be chosen by voters citywide.

Two of the eight proposals would relieve current council members from facing each other. Two others would split Riverbank’s heavily Latino state streets neighborhoods, between Iowa and Virginia avenues, into east-west sections, and two more would split them into northern and southern sections.

Latinos make up 52 percent of the city population but about 42 percent of registered voters. No current council member is Latino, although Leanne Jones Cruz, Cal Campbell and Darlene Barber-Martinez all are married to Latinos.

Public hearings to gather comments on Riverbank voting districts will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday and Nov. 24 in the chamber at 6707 Third St.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390


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