Los Banos’ election system challenged.

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comMay 31, 2014 

Under the threat of lawsuit, the Los Banos City Council is expected to consider changing the system in which elections are held to be in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act.

City Manager Steve Carrigan said the recommendation will be on the City Council agenda Wednesday. He expects the council to provide direction on how staff should proceed.

Carrigan said about two weeks ago the Community Advocacy Coalition, a local civil rights group, sent him a letter requesting resolution on several issues, including switching from at-large to by-area elections. The letter was accompanied by a May 13 letter from Oakland-based Attorney Morris J. Baller demanding that Los Banos hold City Council elections by district.

At issue is the lack of Latino representation on the council.

“Our analysis of population data from census figures shows that approximately 68 percent of the total population of the city is Latino. However, none of the five current members of the City Council is Latino and there has never been a Latino City Council member to our knowledge,” the letter states.

The letter goes on to say that the lack of Latino representation is a violation of the 2001 California Voting Rights Act and if there is not a “satisfactory response” by Monday, the Community Advocacy Coalition “will be forced to consider judicial relief.”

Carrigan said he has met with Baldo Salcido, who is one of the leaders of the coalition, about the items his group wants resolved.

“We had a very productive meeting. They had an agenda of about eight or nine items. It was a two-hour meeting and this, the California Voting Rights Act, was one of the last items on there. We talked about it for 10 minutes,” Carrigan said.

The City Council held a closed session meeting Wednesday on the issue.

“I can tell you they had a very positive response to the coalition’s request on this item, (but) they really want to wait until June 4 to have the full discussion,” Carrigan said after the session.

He said it is an issue the coalition is forcing the city to confront.

“I doubt if they will be going away. This is a timely item,” Carrigan said.

Better representation

In a telephone interview, Salcido said his group is pursuing elections held by area because the council has been unresponsive to the concerns of its citizens. He said he has contacted Mayor Mike Villalta and Councilman Tom Faria in past years about issues involving the police and other issues and received no response or dismissal.

“They’ve always been in violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Salcido said. “We believe Hispanics and people of color should have representation.”

In the past eight years, one Latino, Linda Martinez, ran for a City Council seat. She received 18 percent of the vote in 2010.

City Attorney William Vaughn said he is not surprised at the threat of litigation given similar actionin other Central Valley cities in recent years.

In 2008 Vaughn told the Enterprise the city was researching to see if districting is the best approach for Los Banos to comply with the California Voting Rights Act. The statement was made after a lawsuit against Modesto accusing the city of violating the state act by not having Hispanic representation on its council.

Also, in 2006 Los Banos was in a lawsuit brought against Merced County by Los Banos residents Felix Lopez and Elizabeth Ruiz as well as the Mexican American Political Association. The law firm representing Lopez and Ruiz was also involved in the lawsuit against Modesto.

Two years later Los Banos was dismissed from the lawsuit - which alleged that Merced County cities - as well as 17 other irrigation, water, resource conservation and community service districts - violated the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act by failing to obtain approval from the U.S. Justice Department for more than 200 annexations and other land use changes that could have affected local election results.

According to the judgment filed in U.S. District Court on Jan. 16, 2008, a voluntary dismissal of Los Banos from the lawsuit was sought by the plaintiffs after being informed that the city received pre-clearance by the attorney general before two voting changes. The changes, which occurred in 1972 and 1973, were switching election dates and the number of Los Banos City Council seats that are voted on in the same election.

Concerned about having a similar issue to the one the city is now facing, the Los Banos Unified School District voted to hold elections by-area in 2011. In 2012 the school board’s first election by-area resulted in its only Latino member losing his seat.

Salcido said he is not worried about districting having the opposite effect of its intent.

“What I’m more concerned about is the violation of the law,” Salcido said. “If we don’t have it addressed we will file the lawsuit.”

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