A divided Merced City Council reached a settlement Monday with a civil rights organization that threatened to sue the city over what it called a violation of the California Voting Rights Act, a deal some councilmen likened to bargaining with the devil and negotiating at gunpoint.
After more than three months of closed-session meetings, city officials struck an agreement with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in a 4-3 vote, with Councilmen Noah Lor, Michael Belluomini and Mike Murphy casting the dissenting votes.
The settlement agreement with MALDEF will ask voters in Merced if they want to change the city’s at-large elections to by-district balloting.
City staff will draft a charter amendment measure for the Nov. 4 ballot to let voters decide whether to establish a single-member district election system, according to the agreement obtained by the Sun-Star.
The city must also establish an independent advisory committee to develop district maps splitting the city into six districts, as well as pay MALDEF’s attorney fees of $43,000, the agreement shows.
Under the city’s current system, council members are elected to represent the entire city as opposed to separate districts. MALDEF claimed it received numerous complaints from Latino voters that sparked an investigation of Merced’s demographic and electoral information.
Although Latinos make up more than 49 percent of Merced’s population, none of the six City Council members are Latino and there hasn’t been a Latino on the council in nearly a decade, according to MALDEF.
MALDEF claimed Latino voters complained the city’s election system prevented them from electing candidates of their choice and warned the city it could face litigation if a “satisfactory response” wasn’t received.
“Currently all the City Council members live in north Merced,” said Denise Hulett, national senior counsel for MALDEF. “By-district election means you’ll have people on the City Council representing all sides of the city.”
Hulett declined to discuss the details of the negotiations, but said MALDEF was satisfied with the outcome.
Merced has been in discussions since April and reached an agreement quicker than other cities, she said. “We are very happy that they’ve taken the direction that they have," Hulett said. “Addressing the problem early saved a great deal of time and resources.”
Council members appeared to be split on the issue at Monday’s council meeting. Though the council agreed by-district elections are in Merced’s best interest, some members voiced concerns about the agreement, saying the money spent on MALDEF’s attorney fees could be used for more worthy causes, such as youth services.
“We’ve been supportive, yet we’re still required to pay their legal fees,” Murphy said. “I don’t think this is a good use of our funds.”
Councilman Josh Pedrozo echoed his colleague’s sentiment. “I voted in favor of this agreement holding my nose because $43,000 seems like a lot of money,” he said. “It was almost like negotiating with a gun held to your head.”
Councilman Tony Dossetti compared the settlement to “bargaining with the devil,” but said he’s happy Merced residents will be able to vote on the issue. Dossetti said continuing negotiations would cost the city more money in the long run and it had a slim chance of winning a lawsuit. “We either settle it or let the court settle it for us,” he said.
Mayor Stan Thurston said MALDEF compromised on some of its original demands. “This is half what they’d ask for,” the mayor said. “If neither side is very happy, you probably have a pretty good agreement.”
Thurston said reaching an agreement with the organization is in the city’s best interest. “I think it would have been somewhat irresponsible to keep flirting with a lawsuit with a 99.9 percent chance we’d lose.”
MALDEF officials said 140 California cities and school districts, including Modesto and Ceres, have switched to by-district elections. If Merced voters fail to adopt the changes, Hulett said, it opens the city up to future litigation from other minority groups.
“In a situation where you have racially polarized voting, the at-large election allows the majority of voters to consistently defeat the choice of minority voters,” she said. “The majority controls all of the seats and that’s inherently unfair.”
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.