If a city council in California wants to abandon the at-large method of electing councilmembers in favor of district elections, it should be able to do so without having to go to the voters. At least that's what state Senator Anthony Cannella is attempting to accomplish with his Senate Bill 493, which made its first committee hurdle last week.
Cannella is trying to spare cities the cost of an election when they are a moot point in this case; cities are forced to adopt district elections if voters reject district elections.
Cities, school districts and special districts are being forced to go with district elections as the result of lawsuits by minority groups who see them as a way of getting Latino and other candidates of protected classes elected to office.
On Monday, the Ceres City Council ordered an election for Nov. 4 to decide if Ceres needs to go to district elections.
SB 493 will allow city councils to approve an ordinance that changes its election method from at-large to district representation. Currently, this can only be done through expensive elections which are often held under threat of lawsuit. The city of Modesto fought the change and spent about $2 million fighting a lawsuit and had to switch any way.
Cannella has been watching the drama unfold in Ceres, which has scheduled an election for November to see if voters approve of district elections. The council was told by a consultant that if voters reject the measure, the city still can be sued by groups who claim the city is violating the 2002 California Voting Rights Act.
The act makes it easy for groups to sue cities who don't ditch at-large elections. Consultant Doug Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation of Glendale, explained why Ceres and other cities and school districts are being forced to abandon at-large methods of selecting council members. He said the state's poorly-written act sets up cities for multi-million dollar lawsuits if they don't go to district elections regardless if there is no evidence of voting polarity.
Johnson said going to district elections "is not an admission of guilt" that candidates of a "protected class" have been disadvantaged in getting elected to office.
"It's the federal law that governs how the lines are drawn and really what it says is if you have a neighborhood that is heavily, what the law calls a protected class - so Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans or Asian-Americans, any of those four groups - you can't divide it in a way that would reduce their ability to elect their preferred candidates. You also can't draw the lines to pack all Latinos into one seat if they're spread out or if there's enough to have a lot of influence on two seats."
Cannella's bill was heralded by Maggie Mejia, president of the Latino Community Roundtable.
"This bill will save cities and taxpayers time and money by stopping costly lawsuits before they start," she said.