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System of electing council not broken so dont fix it
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Split Ceres up into five City Council districts or else – you will be sued.

In so many words, that’s the message Maggie Mejia of the Latino Community Roundtable (LCR) delivered to Ceres council members last week.

While she assured the council that LCR members are “not your enemies,” Mejia detailed how any council resistance will be met with attorneys who will cost lots of taxpayer dollars -- and one for which the city will not prevail.

“We’re here to work with you,” Mejia told the council. Really? Is that why she warned “If those civil attorneys come in they will hit you hard and hit you where it hurts the most, in the dollars we need to keep here.”

If the LCR is not an enemy, it certainly isn’t sounding like a friend either.

One man who read our story on the last week’s meeting, sent us an online comment that the LCR’s request “sounds like extortion” and added, “this organization is trying this in every city. If you don’t comply with their demands they will sue. It’s a good old fashioned scam.”

Latino groups up and down California feel that at-large school districts or cities are stacked against Latinos from gaining seats on councils and boards. In Pasadena, Los Banos and Merced to name a few places, they have pushed for abandonment of at-large voting areas. The advocacy groups are locked and loaded with the 2001 California Voting Rights Act which prohibits localities from running at-large elections if they hinder minority groups from electing candidates of their choice. It gets ugly and expensive to prove that voters have a bias again minority candidates as the case must be built through expensive consultants and lawyers.

LCR needs to take a breather and think about this rationally.

Currently, anyone living within the Ceres city limits who are at least 18, a registered Ceres voter (and not a felon) may compete for any Ceres City Council seat. It goes without saying that anyone of any race may become a candidate, campaign and let the voters decide.

In a district setup, the city would be forced to draw lines to split up the city into geographic areas that contain roughly the same amount of voters. Districts could not be expressly gerrymandered but they must be drawn that create strong districts where minorities may compete. A candidate could then only run in the district where he or she resides. Someone who lives, say, in the Boothe Road area would not qualify to run for a seat representing the Morgan and Service area of Ceres.
I say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The LCR is of the mindset that Hispanic candidates cannot get a fair shake. One would be hard-pressed to state that Ceres is biased against Hispanic candidates. (I might add here that Ceres has also elected several women to the City Council in Barbara Hinton, Delinda Moore and Lisa Mantarro Moore.) The people of Ceres elected Louis Arrollo, who is Hispanic, to two terms as mayor, the first dating back to 1987. When Anthony Cannella abandoned his council seat in 2005 to become mayor, the council appointed Guillermo Ochoa, a Latino businessman. Fending off challenges by white candidates in Mike Kline and Steve Breckenridge, Ochoa was re-elected in 2007.

Ceres also has had Hispanic members (Mike Welsh, Edgar Romo and Teresa Guerrero) on the Ceres Unified School District Board of Trustees before CUSD was coerced into creating trustee areas.

I find Mejia’s timing rather odd. Mejia and her roundtable never requested the Ceres City Council to create districts when Ochoa sat on the City Council from 2005 to 2011. The request (or demand) now comes to an admittedly all-white and all-male council in the wake of Ochoa’s 2011 defeat.

Here’s a thought. Perhaps Ceres has no Latinos on its city council, not because of racial bias among voters – that’s hardly been the case – but for lack of successful Latino candidates. Just because one runs is no guarantee that one wins. The success of a candidacy depends on a multitude of factors, including a candidate’s voting record, platform, the size of the campaign fund, the effectiveness of a campaign, how well known a candidate is, and who they are running against.

For example, in November 2011, Ceres elected Eric Ingwerson, a popular, lifelong Ceres resident over a very impressive but relatively unknown Latino candidate in Hugo Molina (who only moved to Ceres in 2006). Throw into the mix a third formidable candidate in Lynda Ryno, a former city employee and wife of well-regarded police sergeant Sam Ryno for whom the community named a park after he was wounded in the Sgt. Howie Stevenson murder in 2005, and you see that Molina really had no prayer in 2011. Molina’s defeat had nothing to do with race and everything to do with running against two big community names. But that’s the nature of politics, pure and simple. No council district erases that reality.

I believe Molina can get there -- if he runs an effective campaign. He is a likeable man, a reasoned candidate but he just needs to get more experience under his belt. But there’s no guarantee Molina would have fared any better in a district election.

Now back to Ochoa. He lost his 2011 re-election bid, falling short by 91 votes to victor Mike Kline (1,009 votes). Ochoa’s defeat may be linked with Latino candidate Daniel Padilla (another unknown) siphoning away Latino support. Padilla received 885 votes, which in theory would have gone to incumbent Ochoa. It’s plausible that Ochoa is correct in his assertion that that his demise was due to Padilla telling Hispanic voters that Ochoa is a Republican – a party that is unpopular with Latinos – while he, Padilla, is a Democrat. Ochoa noted Latinos believed Padilla because “unfortunately Latinos are very gullible.” (Ochoa aptly noted Padilla was a Republican before switching party registration to Democrat before the election but in politics it’s all about spin, not necessarily reality.)

Ochoa, not surprisingly, endorses the LCR request’s for council districts. His reasoning is that candidates will have to spend less money and walk fewer precincts since they only need to campaign for a fifth of the city electorate. True. But that does not necessarily present the best way for Ceres to elect council members. Nor does it guarantee that Hispanics get elected to future councils. It and most certainly does not guarantee Latinos have a council reflective of the same degree of percentage of population.

The LCR may be careful what they wish for. It’s conceivable – indeed likely -- that a council district could draw a cluster of candidates seeking one seat, while another council district race has little or no candidate draw. Latino hopefuls could find a situation where they are unable to run against a vulnerable white candidate in one district because they don’t reside within that district.

But I have more problems with the concept of council districts.

1). It’s a racist view and inherently wrong to say that a Bret Durossette or Chris Vierra or Eric Ingwerson or Ken Lane or Mike Kline cannot effectively represent a Ceres resident who happens to be Latino. After all, a councilman represents all the people, not one ethnic minority. Why do we always have to define Cereans by their race anyway? Until we see ourselves as one people and not individual constituencies, we are promoting racial divide.

2). Think about how thinning out the candidate pack (because of district limitations) could result in poorer quality councilmembers. Here’s what I mean. All council candidates put their name in one hat. Let’s say there are 10 candidates for three open seats. All the voters get to pick the best three out of the 10 from the hat. But let’s imagine that now we have five hats. Let’s say three candidates live and run in one district. Another two names are in hat #2. Two names are in hat #3. Two names are in hat #4. But one candidate, the worst of the entire lot, is the only name in hat #5. He wins by default. The problem is everybody in town knows he is subpar. “If only we could have run against him,” the others are thinking. “My name was in the wrong hat. I could have beat him.”
Enough said.

2). Does Ceres want elected officials making citywide policy who are not accountable to all voters? With district elections, if you wished to help unseat a councilman for taking an action with which you vehemently disagree, you couldn’t oust him out of office unless you moved into his district. What if you end up with a Jesse James White who embarrasses your city but you are powerless to recall him because he’s out of your district? Tough luck.

Here’s another example. Let’s say a councilman favors Ceres Police changing its policy of towing the vehicle of a person found to be without a driver’s license during a traffic stop. State law calls for the vehicle to be towed (subject to officer discretion). The policy ensnares undocumented (code word for “illegal”) immigrants who lose their vehicles. Looking the other way would mean unlicensed and uninsured motorists continue to endanger the public. So, if you have a problem with a councilman asking his officers to give a pass to certain constituencies from obeying the laws that everyone else must follow, you may want him unseated. But under the district plan, you can’t vote against him unless you live in his district.

3). Imagine how complacent you may find a councilman in dealing with problems in your neighborhood when he/she represents another district. After all, he’s not accountable to the entire city population anymore.

4). A change to districts will be costly, despite Mrs. Mejia insistence that she doesn’t want city money wasted. The city is already strapped for money as it. I say if it ain’t broke, don’t bother.

5). Ceres hardly has a size that warrants council districts. It makes sense for Stanislaus County to have supervisorial districts because it is 1,515 square miles in size; but Ceres is only 7.8 square miles in size and only has a population of 46,000.

This is all part of a leftist agenda that preaches equal opportunities but in practice seeks equal outcomes. And it creates advocacy politics that stray from the notion of a color-blind society.

If only Martin Luther King’s words were put into practice. We’d then see our candidates for the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
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