City officials plan to gather in November to examine all of the issues surrounding a possible November 2015 ballot measure that would decide the fate of district elections for City Council and mayor offices.
City Attorney Mike Lyions said a study session will be held in three months "for the purpose of revisiting and updating all of the issues related to district elections, suggesting a process and a schedule for moving forward and receiving direction from the council.
Representatives of the Latino Community Roundtable asked the council to consider district elections versus the current at-large system of electing members of the council. They feel dividing the city into smaller districts will make it easier for minorities to be elected to office.
The city of Turlock has ordered an election to decide the fate of district citywide elections there. Maggie Mejia, president of the Latino Community Roundtable, came before the council on June 23 for an update on where the Ceres process is currently.
In July 2013, the Ceres City Council said it would be open to her request to place the matter before voters as early as 2015.
"If the city gets started with the process right after the first of the year, there should be no problem meeting the deadline for placing the matter on the November 2015 ballot," wrote Lyions in a July 28 memo to the council.
Mejia feels into districts would increase participation of more ethnically diverse candidates, a concept that has not been proven.
Mejia 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.
Lyions said that the council could pass an ordinance to place the matter of district elections on a future ballot but that the council can't arbitrarily create council districts. Lyions is of the opinion that if voters decide against district elections, the city would not be insulated against a lawsuit but feels that voter consideration could be a "deterrent" for legal action.
Last year 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. 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 court fees.
If voters were to approve district elections, the city would be forced to spend taxpayer dollars to hire a consultant to help the city draw boundaries. Lyions said the city must be careful in drawing districts and cannot legally draw them to favor ethnic makeup. He said he anticipates 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.
Former city councilman Guillermo Ochoa feels 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."
Some on the council have expressed concerns in the past about district elections. Mayor Chris Vierra said if turnout remains as low as in past years, he envisions a time when between 250 and 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."
The Ceres Unified School District went to district elections in 2009 after threats of being sued under the California Voting Rights Act. CUSD avoided litigation by reaching a compromise with the Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights. The nonprofit advocacy group had filed a lawsuit on behalf of Latino voters, charging that the district's at-large method of election was racially polarizing and violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).