Kevin Blake: Merced should increase diversity on own terms

April 22, 2014 

Last Wednesday, the Merced City Council went into a closed session to discuss the threat of litigation from a civil rights organization in Los Angeles. The suggestion that we need increased diversity among our local elected officials is a point well taken, especially by me.

The introduction of City Council districts as a remedy to this particular problem is well-intended, but might not be the most effective solution. The good news is that we already have taken the best possible step to address this problem: adoption of the Measure J initiative. As a private citizen, I voted for its passage.

Measure J will increase diversity of representation by addressing the issue at its root cause: civic engagement and voter participation. Moving city elections from off-year, standalone contests and bringing them in line with the presidential general election would ensure that as many members of the community are participating in the electoral process as possible. Consider these statistics: In the 2012 presidential election, 18,216 ballots were cast in the city of Merced; in contrast, in the 2013 municipal election, only 7,290 ballots were cast by city residents – a decrease of almost 60 percent.

Of particular note is the discrepancy in participation by Latinos voters, the demographic group said to be under-represented. While Latinos accounted for only 17 percent of voters in 2013, they made up 30 percent of voters in 2012 – and we can likely expect comparable turnout in the newly consolidated 2016 city election.

Let me be clear: I have always supported City Council districts; as a matter of fact, I was the only candidate to go on the record with that position in the 2013 campaign. Though districts will not increase diverse representation nearly as much as a new election calendar, they still provide a number of important advantages.

Districts will allow council members to address priorities unique to different areas of the city. For instance, members representing the south side will likely spend time working on improving street lighting, animal control and ensuring a sufficient law enforcement presence. In the central part of the city, downtown development, code enforcement, and investment in pedestrian and bicycle-friendly infrastructure will likely take precedence. Similarly, representatives of the north side will probably focus on land-use policy and traffic control.

Of course, these are issues well worth discussing citywide, but it is hard to deny that each geographic area has specific needs. Lastly, a district system will improve constituent service and access by enabling citizens to more easily identify their contact person in city government. I know from personal experience that it is much easier to get help with state issues by calling our Assembly representative or state senator than by reaching out to the governor’s office or any other statewide representative.

It is critical that the city of Merced take a proactive rather than a reactive approach to these issues. Our city and our representative bodies are best served by real diversity: diversity of age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, education, geography and opinion. That is why, at Monday’s council meeting, I voted that the question of districting be put before the voters, so we can move past this issue quickly, decisively and on our own terms.

Blake is a City Council member.

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