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District elections to be pondered in Ceres
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Ceres voters will be choosing three members of the Ceres City Council in the November 2015 general election. The election for seats occupied by Mayor Chris Vierra and councilmembers Bret Durossette and Mike Kline may be the last decided on a citywide basis.

Next month city officials plan to examine all of the issues surrounding a possible November 2015 ballot measure that would decide the fate of district elections for City Council seats.

City Attorney Mike Lyions said a Study Session will be held on Monday, Dec. 8 "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 prompted the council to consider district elections versus the current at-large system of electing members of the council. The group feels that dividing the city into smaller districts will make it easier for minorities to be elected to office.

Lyions said he plans to see if the council wishes to proceed and if so how to create new council districts. A decision needs to be made by June in order to place a ballot measure on the 2015 ballot. If it passes, the new method of council would likely take effect in 2017.

A consultant would probably be hired to draw boundaries for four council districts. Lyions anticipates a "number of community meetings" to allow the public to weigh in.

The city of Turlock approved district elections on Nov. 3, splitting the city up into four equally populated districts. Turlock's Measure A received a 74 percent approval.

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. Mejia feels into districts would increase participation of more ethnically diverse candidates, a concept that has not been proven.

Mejia suggested that the city could 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 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.

The council has the option of going with a "for district" or "by district" setup. One method would create districts in which only voters in those areas may elect their own council member. The option is to draw lines and require candidates to live in their respective districts but be voted on by the entire Ceres population. Former city councilman Guillermo Ochoa favors the "by district" method, saying that "by district" elections would make it cheaper to campaign since there would be less effort, signs and flyers with a small voter pool. 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."

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.

Some on the council have concerns about district elections. Mayor Chris Vierra prefers "for district" elections, saying 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).