The first community forum on the city of Ceres forming district City Council districts was mostly a public no-show on Thursday evening.
Consultant Doug Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation of Glendale, explained why Ceres and other cities and school districts are being forced to abandon at-large methods of selecting council members. He said the state has a poorly-written Voting Rights Act that sets up cities for multi-million dollar lawsuits if they don't go to district elections regardless if there is no evidence of voting polarity.
Only three members of the public joined in three members of the City Council, the city attorney, city staff and a representative of the Chamber.
Johnson showed and explained possible boundary maps - one to be settled on by the council - that dices up Ceres into four fairly equally balanced populations of about 11,535 residents. The boundaries should be carved in a way that place each existing councilmember in a separate district, create at least one district with a majority of Latino voters and follow major streets. Johnson presented three good district boundary scenarios that put Linda Ryno, Bret Durossette, Mike Kline and Ken Lane in separate districts.
The city would continue to elect its mayor on an at-large basis since there is only one mayor.
Ceres voters will decide on Nov. 3 if district elections are the way to go. However, if Ceres voters reject a change, the city will have no choice but to acquiesce to the 2002 California Voting Rights Act or face a lawsuit and the potential loss of millions of dollars fighting the change.
The public will be given another chance to attend a public workshop at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 11 at the Ceres Community Center, 2701 Fourth Street.
Riverbank is also going through the process and last November Turlock voters approved district council elections. Modesto was forced to go to district elections years ago after waging a legal fight that cost taxpayers an estimated $2 million in attorney's fees.
"We're now at 15 cities that have switched to district elections," said Johnson. "It doesn't sound like a lot until we find out that before the California Voting Rights Act there were only 28 cities that used district elections. So we've got more than a 50 percent increase and about eight or nine cities that are currently changing right now."
At least 105 school districts - including Ceres Unified School District - have left at-large districts in favor of district elections for trustees.
"This is definitely a hot topic across the whole state," said Johnson.
It didn't appear too hot in Ceres, based on the number of empty seats at the Ceres Community Center.
"This is the biggest change in California local government since the progressives came in in the early 1900s and put in city managers."
Johnson said 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 - so 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. 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."
Maggie Mejia was the only Latino member of the audience. Representing the Latino Community Roundtable (LCR), she approached the council in 2013 asking the city to move to district elections, citing how Modesto fought the change and lost. LCR, she said, is not interested in suing Ceres to make the change.
A group called the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights forced the Ceres Unified School District to go to district elections in 2009 after threats of being sued under the California Voting Rights Act. 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).
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 first district election would be in 2017 when two council seats are open. The first full district election would take place in 2019.
The boundaries would be changed after the U.S. Census is taken every decade.