A number of outreach forums will take place in likely February and March to collect input on a proposed November 2015 ballot measure calling for the formation of Ceres City Council districts.
During a special Study Session held Monday evening, members of the City Council decided to take the steps to create a ballot measure which essentially would end the current at-large method of electing councilmembers. Instead, Ceres would be divided up into four districts which would produce their own candidates.
The action is being taken in response to a request by the Latino Community Roundtable, whose president said she fears cities like Ceres stand to lose millions in attorney's fees fighting to keep the traditional at-large voting method.
Maggie Mejia suggested that the city will be sued by minority groups if it failed to consider district elections. The Ceres Unified School District went to School Board district elections in 2009 after threats of being sued under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). CUSD avoided litigation by reaching a compromise with the Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights which charged that the district's at-large method of election was racially polarizing and violated the CVRA.
Maggie Mejia feels into districts would increase participation of more ethnically diverse candidates, a concept that has not been proven. She said that dividing the city into smaller districts will make it easier for minorities to be elected to office because it makes it easier and less expensive to conduct a campaign.
Only voters may change how council elections are conducted but if the district elections are turned down, the city could still be sued in the future, said City Attorney Mike Lyions, who retired after the meeting after 44 years of service.
Mayor Chris Vierra said he doubted the voters would turn down the measure given that Turlock voters just passed a measure that calls for district elections there by a majority of 74 percent approval.
Lyions said the city will probably have to spend $15,000 to $20,000 for a consultant, who is an expert in creating council districts, to guide the city through the process.
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 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."
"Based upon the last election, you're gonna have 698 voters in each election and if you take the map and say 41 percent is the highest vote (percentage), 285 votes will get you elected," said Vierra. "For 3,000 bucks you can buy an election which is pretty cheap. That's my concern. That can happen with that small of a pool. You can have a couple of districts where 500 people are controlling a body of nearly 50,000 people."
Councilmember Bret Durossette asked what would happen if nobody ran in a specific district. Lyions said it would probably be solved by a council appointment. However, the council cannot consist of more than three appointed members.
Councilman Mike Kline said he was "utterly amazed" that only 441 of 482 cities in the state still use the at-large system.
The council needs to order the election by June to get it on the November ballot.
Former City Councilman Guillermo Ochoa said he likes district elections because campaigns are cheaper and less involved.