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Ceres forced to district elections?
Regardless of November election outcome, lawsuit threat is overwhelming enough to force change

Voters in Ceres will be given a chance to weigh in on whether or not City Council seats should be elected by district - and abandon the current at-large system - but regardless how November's vote goes, the city must make the change anyway.

That's the conclusion of a consultant, familiar with the impact of the 2002 California Voting Rights Act on district elections, who spoke to the Ceres City Council last week.

Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation of Glendale, was hired by the city to guide the city through the process of holding community meetings and designing the ballot measure. The firm will also decide where council district lines will be drawn. He made it clear that if voters reject the measure, the city could keep its at-large system but would be subject to losing millions of dollars in court and attorney's fees fighting a switch.

Last November, Turlock voters overwhelmingly approved a measure there to go to district elections. Vice Mayor Bret Durossette asked what would happen if the voters of Ceres rejected a similar measure. Johnson said that only three jurisdictions in the state - Tulare Hospital District, city of Visalia, and Highland - all voted district elections down but are being legally pressured to do so.

The League of California Cities is seeking legislation to allow cities to be excused from holding an election in lieu of making a board or council decision to make the change. School districts don't have to hold elections in order to abandon at-large districts.

"If you vote it down and that election's polarized you just created more evidence against yourself," said Johnson.

"So you're placed in a precarious legal position if it gets voted down," said Interim City Attorney Tom Hallinan.

The federal Voting Rights Act prohibits discriminatory voting practices in general, said Hallinan, but the state law was crafted to make it easier for minority groups to show that at-large districts are discriminatory.

"Only California law could find a way to have the taxpayers spend $60,000 to $80,000, take it to them, if they chose that they don't want to do it they can be forced to do it anyway," said Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra. "That's what kind of government we have here. Someone will have to explain that to me."

Representatives of the Latino Community Roundtable (LCR) came to the council in 2013 asking the city to move towards district elections, citing how Modesto fought the change and spent $2 million in fees of taxpayers' money doing so.

Minority groups like LCR feel that district elections would make it easier for minority candidates to be elected, stating that concentrations of minority voters could be outnumbered in at-large districts controlled by non-minority voters.

The council must decide on:

• If Ceres should stick with an a mayor and four council seats or expand to the council to six seats;

• Where to draw district boundaries;

• To create "by districts" or "from districts."

• How to handle annexations when they come up.

District boundaries would have to be redrawn every 10 years just as lines for congressional and state office seats are drawn.

The council has the option of putting a "for district" or "by district" method before the voters. The "by district" method would create four districts in which only voters in those areas may elect their own council member. The "from district" method calls for lines to be drawn and require candidates to live in their respective districts but be voted on by the entire Ceres voter population. LCR officials support the "by district" alternative. Mayor Vierra said he is supportive of district elections but said by "makes sense" to go with "from districts."

Johnson noted that some communities have allowed voters to make the decision on "for districts" and "by districts" and typically split down the middle and in effect vote the measure down.

"And the other catch is the ‘from district' system is not a protection against lawsuits," said Johnson. "The law is specifically written to say you have to be ‘by district' or they can sue you."

Councilmember Ken Lane wondered if Ceres could set a population level as a trigger to go to district elections, such as when it hits 50,000 residents. Some cities have done that, answered Johnson, but the city would be open to a legal suit in the meantime.

The city of Carlsbad took that action and has yet to be sued, said City Manager Toby Wells.

"It's unfortunate that you would have members of this council that maybe get voted in by 250, 300, 400, 500 votes right that really doesn't represent our city at the level we're at today," said Lane, "even though we're at 47,000."

Vierra asked Johnson about criteria of candidate residency and the potential for carpet bagging.

"I could see the carpet baggers that are in political games who move from area to area and have no roots there," said Vierra. "Obviously this is supposed to be representation from the area."

Hallinan said he believes a 30-day voter registration before filing is all that would be required to run in a district.

Community forums are tentatively planned for March 31 and April 2 at the Ceres Community Center.

The council will likely order the election and outline the measure on Tuesday, May 26.

After the meeting, Johnson said the California law was poorly written and basically signed into law by then California Governor Gray Davis as a favor to a Southern California Democrat state Senator Alex Padilla. Critics of the law say that cities are too vulnerable to lawsuits from minority groups challenging "at-large" elections. Cities are also on the financial hook to fight them since challengers