Ceres voters may be deciding in 2015 whether or not city councilmembers should be elected by districts or continue to be elected in the current at-large method.
At Monday's City Council Study Session, members said they are open to having the matter go to the voters.
The Latino Community Roundtable (LCR) asked the council earlier this year to look into districts as a way of increasing participation of more ethnically diverse candidates. Maggie Mejia of the LCR suggested that the city will be sued if it failed to consider district elections, saying the city could be in jeopardy under the California Voting Rights Act.
The Ceres Unified School District went to district elections several years ago under a similar threat.
City Attorney Michael Lyions said that the council could pass an ordinance to place the matter of district elections on a future ballot but that the council couldn't arbitrarily create council districts. Lyions stated his opinion that if the voters nix district elections, the city would not be insulated against a lawsuit but feels that voter consideration could be a "deterrent" for legal action.
On Monday Mejia admitted that her group sent a "rather harsh" letter to the council to force the city to consider district elections but stated that the LCR is not interested in suing the city of Ceres. She said the request was merely to spur the council into dialogue to prevent a lawsuit from another group and the wasteful use of taxpayer money on attorney fees.
"We're not the ones who will be filing the lawsuit," Mejia told the council. "We brought it to your attention because we want to help you and protect you."
However, the city would be forced to spend taxpayer dollars to hire a consultant to help the city draw boundaries if council districts are approved. Vice Mayor Ken Lane noted that the city of Newman has had to incur consultant costs.
Lyions said the city must be careful in drawing districts and cannot legally draw them to favor ethnic makeup. He said he expects some "degree of controversy" in where the district boundary lines are drawn. The city attorney also reminded the council that the federal census taken every 10 years would trigger boundaries to be redrawn to keep a balanced population distribution.
The council could call for "from district" elections whereby a candidate would have to reside in a district he or she runs in but face all city voters. The other option is for the more restrictive "by district" elections where a candidate must be from a specific districts where only district voters may cast ballots.
Yet to be determined is if the council wants to create two to four extra council seats to preside along with the at-large mayor's position. Currently the council is made up of four council seats and a mayor's seat. Lyions said the council could be expanded up to nine members.
Former city councilman Guillermo Ochoa attended Monday's session and advocated districts. He said that district elections would make it easier for anyone to run for office since it is cheaper to campaign in a district since it has fewer voters than the entire city. Ochoa suggested that districts would cause citizens to feel "more empowered" to run for election.
"It basically gives an opportunity to more individuals from different backgrounds to try to run for city council," said Ochoa. "Some may not run because of the money situation; that you've got to go out there and raise quite a bit of money. So by having district election it's a lot easier. Our citizens will feel more empowered to run."
Ochoa went farther, however, in suggesting that the council could use a Latino member to better connect some citizens to local government. "The Latinos would like to have someone else again sitting there where you're at," Ochoa told the council, "simply because ... of the ethnicity culture. You feel more comfortable speaking to someone you think they understand you."
Rosalinda Vierra, a 10-year Ceres resident and political chair of LCR, got more personal when she suggested that a recent past council was not responsive to Colony Park Mobilehome Estates residents when asked the council for rental control measures. Lane corrected Vierra, saying that "this council did everything possible" to resolve park problems but noted "you can only go so far" in a private park ownership matter.
Lane also noted that he "represents all the people - always have. My door has always been open...to any member of this community regardless of race, religion, whatever it may be."
Councilman Mike Kline balked at a Monday Modesto Bee article which quoted a letter from the LCR that claimed that at-large districts were nothing more than a "protection of incumbents voting scheme." Mejia claimed she didn't know where the quote came from, despite the mayor saying it came from an LCR letter he received earlier this year.
"I take exception to that," said Kline, who mentioned losing several council elections before he won. He said he won through perseverance and learning to improve his candidacies that allowed him to get to the council. Kline faulted low voter turnout as low as 18 percent as the bigger problem in Ceres. He did not, however, stand against district elections.
Vierra said he was "really disappointed and saddened" to read the LCR's comment.
"I'm a firm believer that representation isn't just about where you live," said Mayor Vierra. "It's about understanding the job, knowing the job and being well prepared. It's about being very well suited to serve the people that I represent. To that end ... I believe spending time on the Planning Commission is an essential part of being a part of this body."
He noted that equal representation is something he values but said "I don't think threatening to sue is the way you go about it." But he said the threat of defending a lawsuit gives him cause to be prudent in considering district elections.
Vierra cited how his council has diligently reached out to include minorities on the commission. The mayor noted the appointment of Ruthanne Williams, an African-American, and Latino resident Hugo Molina to the Ceres Planning Commission. Vierra also noted that the council went out of its way to appoint Ochoa to the City Council in December 2005 to fill the unexpired council seat of Anthony Cannella after Ochoa lost the Nov. 8, 2005 election, even though Kline had a strong case that he should be appointed as a close third place finisher. In addition, the mayor said he has been recruiting a member of the Sikh community to seek an appointment to the Planning Commission.
Vierra also mentioned the "horribly low voter turnout" as a problem. The mayor said he looked at the issue as a math problem and applied past voter turnouts to the estimated 832 voters per district. He said if turnout is as low as in past years, he can envision a time when between 250 to 330 voters could elect a councilman to represent a city of nearly 50,000 residents.
"That's a little concerning to me," said Vierra. "I'm all about equal representation but I don't want 250 people in one area necessarily deciding for the entire city."