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City acts to realign council terms with major elections

No longer will elections for Ceres City Council occur in "off years."

On Monday the council voted to give a one-year addition to the four-year terms in order to time them to land in years in which either Californians elect a governor or Americans elect a president. The passage of the city ordinance is in response to a new state law seeking to increase voter participation.

SB 415, passed by the Legislature and signed into law on Sept. 1, 2015 by Gov. Jerry Brown, is designed to get municipal elections away from "off year" election cycles, in other words, when not packaged with an election for governor or president. State lawmakers have noted that many voters won't turn out to vote if only local races are on the ballot so the law requires cities to come up with a transition plan by Jan. 1, 2018 and implemented by November 2022. Ceres wasted no time in complying.

SB 415 specifically dictates that cities cannot hold an election in an off-year if the historical trend of voter turnout is more than 25 percent less than major election years. In November City Manager Toby Wells supplied the City Council with data backing the state's claim that voter turnout can be extremely low in off-year elections. In November 2015, for example, voter turnout in Ceres was at a dismal 15.93 percent but it more than doubled to 33.92 percent in November 2014 as Californians voted for a governor. During the presidential election of 2008, voter turnout in Ceres was even higher at 64.62 percent. Average voter turnout over the past four statewide elections (including two presidential elections) was 51 percent in Ceres. However, average voter turnout over the past four municipal elections, held in an "off" years, was 17 percent. That puts Ceres directly under the dictates of SB 214 to modify terms.

Voter participation in lower level elections could increase by 25 to 36 percent under the new direction, concluded a study done two years ago by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The Ceres Unified School District board recently opted to extend their next terms to comply with SB 415.

The council had three options to comply with SB 415:

• A one-time expansion of the current four-year terms to five years so elections fall in an odd-year election;

• A one-time reduction of the otherwise four-year terms to three years;
• Extend the next council terms by a year.

The consensus of the council in November was to lengthen the terms immediately.

The action means that the seats occupied by Linda Ryno and Ken Lane, which were due to expire in November 2017, now expire in November 2018. Both seats will be up for grabs when California elects a governor and weighs in on other statewide offices.

The seats of Mayor Chris Vierra and Councilmembers Bret Durossette and Mike Kline were set to expire November 2019, which would be considered an off-year for elections. Adding a year to their terms mean they would be before voters until November 2020, which will be a presidential election year.

Ryno said expanding the council terms has another benefit in that it allows her and the others to focus on the update of the General Plan, which will be completed in early 2018. She also cited the cost savings of not having to pay for an election for the next two years. Kline agrees that postponing the 2017 election until 2018 will help avoid disrupting the council's attention needed to see the General Fund update through. Durossette pointed out that the city will refrain from having to shell out $40,000 for a council election this year. Lane said he is not planning to run in 2018 and appreciates another year to focus on the important update.

The city does not need to seek voter approval to expand the terms, said Wells.

The change comes at a time when Ceres will participate in its first-ever council district elections. Since incorporation in 1918, city council members have been elected on an at-large basis. Many cities like Ceres have decided to go with district elections seeing how minority groups like the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights have threatened to sue cities and schools districts who have not gone to district elections under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

The nonprofit advocacy group charges that the at-large method of election was racially polarizing and violated the CVRA.

Mayor Vierra, who is not subjected to district elections since the office of mayor is still elected on an at-large basis, fears the council districts will mean even smaller groups of voters will control the city. He noted in 2015 that based on past voter turnout, each district may see about 300 voters turn out to vote to decide leaders for a city of nearly 50,000 people.