The future of politics in Ceres will change significantly with last week's passage of Measure D.
The advisory vote calls for the Ceres City Council to create four City Council districts in Ceres and doing away with the at-large method of electing councilmembers.
Representatives of the Latino Community Roundtable (LCR) asked the city in 2013 to establish district elections, citing how the city of Modesto lost a legal battle to make the switchover while spending $2 million in attorney fees. As a result, Modesto set up council districts. LCR leaders warned that the city that Ceres could end up in the same situation and asked the council to let voters weigh in.
City leaders were not especially receptive to the idea of council districts but agreed to the Nov. 3 measure. Voters approved the measure last week by a margin of 1,079 votes (66.28 percent) to 549 votes (33.72 percent).
Minority advocacy groups have maintained that district elections help more minorities get elected to office. Groups like the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights have successfully sued cities and special districts in California, claiming that at-large districts make it more difficult for minority candidates to get elected because of voter polarization. While their claim has not been substantiated, those groups have prevailed in court with the full force of 2002 California Voters Rights Act. The federal Voting Rights Act prohibits discriminatory voting practices in general, said City Attorney Tom Hallinan, but the state law makes it easier for minority groups to sue to put at-large districts out of existence. Critics say that the state law makes it difficult for cities and school districts to win their cases despite a lack of evidence that minority candidates have the odds of winning stacked against them.
Ironically, had Ceres voters rejected Measure D, the council could have created council districts anyway.
Ceres was one of the last cities to put district elections on the ballot. Seeing the quandary Ceres was in, state Senator Anthony Cannella, D-Ceres, authored a bill that was signed into law last month by Gov. Jerry Brown that allows cities to make the switch to district elections without the need to seek voter consent. SB 493 was signed into law after Measure D was ordered for the ballot.
Doug Johnson, a consultant with the National Demographics Corporation of Glendale, said that 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 - 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," said Johnson. "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."
Johnson helped the city draw the new district boundaries earlier this year. Only one council district - District #2 - has been drawn with a majority of minority voters. Linda Ryno sits in that awkwardly-drawn district. She protested her neighborhood in the vicinity of Ceres High School being gerrymandered all the way to Ceres' western boundary for the sake of creating a predominantly Latino voter base. District #2 is has a 54 percent Latino voter registration.
Councilman Ken Lane's District #1 consists mostly of the northwest section of Ceres west of Moffet Road. The district includes everything north of Evans Road, everything north of Caswell Avenue and a finger that reaches down to Whitmore Avenue to take in Mary Avenue.
Bret Durossette's contorted District #3 covers northeast Ceres, including areas east of Moffet Road and north of Fowler Road as well as all of Eastgate.
Mike Kline's home was drawn into District #4 which covers a block around Smyrna Park southward to Highway 99 and leaping across the freeway to take some areas of southwest Ceres, including Marazzi Lane, Sungate Drive, and Daisy Tree Lane. The district also represents downtown Ceres.
Ceres voters will continue to elect the mayor on an at-large basis since there is but one mayor.
Not only does Measure D change the dynamics of future political contests, it complicates who runs against whom. Gone are the days when any registered voter in Ceres could run for any council seat with the top vote-getters getting in office.
Since the city's 1917 incorporation, all council candidates faced off with one another regardless of where they lived in Ceres. In 1993, for example, nine candidates battled it out for two open council seats which were won by top two vote-getters Stan Risen and Leo Havener Jr. The creation of council districts #1, #2, #3 and #4 changes those dynamics.
The first district election will take place in 2017 when the council terms of Ryno and Lane expire. Lane has publicly said he's unsure if he'll seek re-election.
The Courier has identified seven key ways in which the political atmosphere in Ceres will change:
1). There will be fewer opportunities for citizens to run for Ceres City Council.
In the past, if a Ceres voter wanted to run for council, that person needed to wait for a council election, which occur every two years since terms are staggered. Now a person must wait for his or her council district seat to open up, which is every four years. The most obvious example is that of Don Cool, who lost his bid for council last week. Under the at-large system, Cool could have tried running again in the 2017 election. Because his Standford Avenue home is now in District #4, Cool cannot run until Mike Kline's term is up in 2019. Of course, moving around is an option for the politically ambitious.
2). Fallout of politics and controversies will be more isolated.
Potential candidates and/or incumbents need only pay close attention to the politics of their district only, not necessarily the entire city. Council members may well be insulated from hot topic issues that don't affect their district. For example, it's conceivable that three councilmembers could support a controversial project - say a shopping center outside of their council district - that causes angst for neighboring residents who cannot vote them out of office.
3). Competition in council races could be highly consistent.
There could be a concentration of candidates in any given district, or an absence of candidates in another because of the limitation of addresses. It's conceivable that multiple candidates could materialize for one council district race while another district attracts little or none.
3). Campaign costs are bound to decrease.
It should now be cheaper to run for office in Ceres since candidates need only campaign in a much smaller district rather than get out their message to the entire city. Candidates who sent mailers previously had to send mailers to voters of the entire city of 46,000 residents but each district now has about 11,535 residents. That means fewer campaign signs and mailers and less cost. There will also be less shoe leather to wear out while walking precincts.
4). Candidates can win with dismally fewer votes.
It's plausible that a candidate may be elected to represent a city of 46,714 by collecting just 100 to 200 votes. Do the math. Last week's voter turn-out in the county was a dismal 13.2 percent with only 1,676 voting in Ceres. Divide that number by four and you end up with roughly 419 participating voters per district. If you have two candidates who split that vote, a person could win with just 210 votes. Add three into the mix and the vote could be split down to 139 voters. If four split the vote, that's about 104 apiece. You get the idea.
5). Minorities are not guaranteed more representation on the council.
Candidates may win by circumstance but are elected mostly on other factors, such as name recognition, campaign themes, community involvement and campaign cash. Districts don't necessarily help minorities like Latinos to get elected to any office. There's no guarantee that a Latino candidate materializes in every council district, let alone one that has all combinations for success.
6). Council districts may not be drawn to best represent communities.
Because new district lines were drawn in an attempt to give the incumbents their own district while creating at least one district with a "minority majority," some wild gerrymandering has occurred. Ryno complains that her older established neighborhood near Ceres High has been cut from the neighborhood to be included with west Ceres which may not have as much in common. Kline senses the oddity of his District #4 as well.
7). There will be a lot of voter confusion about the change for a while.
Get out the map and study it to figure out who "your" councilman is now. Technically a councilman represents the whole city but is answerable to only a fourth of it now. Residents, of course, may complain about water rates or policies to the other councilmembers but don't be surprised if they are not as responsive if you aren't a constituent. That's just human nature.