Should Ceres elect city councilmembers on the basis of districts rather than the current at-large city limits? The pros and cons of the issue will be discussed at a 5:30 p.m. council study session set for Monday, July 22 at the Ceres Community Center, 2701 Fourth Street.
A minority group asked the council in March to consider changing the method Ceres voters elect members of the council. The Latino Community Roundtable (LCR) said Ceres voters should be electing members on the basis of five districts, not on a citywide basis.
Some city councils in smaller California cities have caved to the political pressure exerted by minority groups, which believe that smaller districts give minority candidates a better shot at becoming elected. In 2009 the Ceres Unified School District also set up district elections in response to pressure by the San Francisco-based Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights which sent letters to 25 school districts encouraging them to voluntarily end their practice of at-large elections or risk being sued. Madera's school district fought trustee areas but lost the legal fight after spending $1 million in attorney fees, said LCR president Maggie Mejia. The city of Los Banos has gone to district based elections for council seats.
The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 expanded the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for minority groups in California to prove that their votes are being diluted in "at-large" elections. In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court established conditions that must be met to prove that minorities are being disenfranchised; the CVRA eliminated one of these requirements. Unlike the Federal Voting Rights Act, the CVRA does not require plaintiffs to demonstrate a specific geographic district where a minority is concentrated enough to establish a majority. This makes it easier for minority voters to sue local governments and eliminate at-large elections.
In 2007, the California State Supreme court ruled the act constitutional in Sanchez v. The City of Modesto. The city claimed that the act was unconstitutional because it inherently favored people of color; the court concluded that the act was not racist in nature and returned the case to the trial court.
In making her request, Mejia, assured the Ceres City Council that LCR members "are not your enemies," but hinted that a lawsuit may result if the council resists.
"If those civil attorneys come in they will hit you hard and hit you where it hurts the most, in the dollars we need to keep here," Mejia told the council in March.
She did not specifically say the LCR would file a suit.
A supporter of council districts is former Ceres City Councilman Guillermo Ochoa who said that districts would allow candidates to spend less on election materials since they would not have to campaign in the entire city but target a smaller pool of the electorate.
Opponents of the change say that at 7.8 square miles, Ceres is too small for district elections and point out that Ceres has elected Latino candidates in the past.
They also say Ceres would have elected officials making citywide policy who are not accountable to all voters.
Statewide critics of the act argue that it inappropriately makes race a predominant factor in elections and that it does not make sense to eliminate the requirement to establish a geographic district where there is a minority concentration.