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Council moves forward with district elections

The Turlock City Council opted to take an important step towards switching Turlock’s current at-large election system to one composed of multiple districts, in an effort to encourage equal representation within local government while also saving the city from hefty lawsuits.

On Tuesday, the Council voted unanimously to move forward with the formation of the draft boundary plans that would be used in future Council elections, if approved by Turlock voters in November. While the formation of the district boundaries throughout the city of Turlock will likely be influenced by population data and relevant demographic information, city officials are also asking for input from community members.

Although by-district elections have been in place in large cities such as Los Angeles for some time, smaller municipalities throughout the state are increasingly switching from at-large systems to district-based systems as the pressure from various groups representing minorities continues to build. In recent years, such organizations have filed several lawsuits against California cities with at-large systems for violating the California Voting Rights Act, often resulting in million-dollar settlements and pricey attorney fees.

In February 2013, the City of Turlock received a letter from the Latino Community Roundtable of Stanislaus County advising city officials to switch to by-district elections before an outside organization threatened Turlock with a similar lawsuit seen in the City of Modesto. Although the City of Modesto eventually switched to a by-district system – the only city to do so in Stanislaus County – the settlement cost the city about $3 million in taxpayer money.

“Some smaller cities are switching to by-districts because of rapidly growing Latino populations, as an effort to give that population a voice on the City Council,” said Doug Johnson, president of National Demographics Corporation. “Though the main impact so far has been financial…It’s good that the City of Turlock is considering this prior to a plaintiff’s arrival.”

With an electoral district system in place, advocates believe minorities are more likely to be voted in, creating more equal representation on the local city council as each member would represent a specific neighborhood from within the city.

As many Central California cities are taking the issue to voters in an expedited process with hopes to avoid any impending litigation from minority groups, many nearby cities are also considering making the change, including Riverbank, Newman, Waterford, and Ceres.

Although the decision to switch systems would be placed on the November ballot, Johnson warned that the change could still take place even if voted against by the majority of voters. Should Turlock residents not approve the change and instead vote to keep the current at-large system in place, Johnson says the change to district elections could still be court-mandated.

“Realistically, it would be a race to the court room,” said Johnson, explaining to the Council what might happen should voters not approve the measure. “It could be used as more liability and evidence against them, in which case a court can order the change to take place by the next election.”

According to Johnson, politicians trying to create a similar law in the state of Washington are trying to change the process, allowing cities and elected officials to change the election system locally without the approval of voters.

“It just kind of shows you the absurdity of the law,” said Councilmember Steven Nascimento. “It requires you to have this voted on, but if voted against, will then be imposed anyway.”

Approved unanimously by the Council, the decision to move forward with the preparation and formation of electoral districts is just the first of many steps in changing to a by-district system. Throughout the month of May, the Council will be holding two special meetings seeking public input on how boundaries should be formed while changing to a district election system. Additionally, city officials will continually hold meetings with city staff over the coming weeks to create a map outlining the proposed district lines before bringing it back to the Council for consideration on May 27.