Atwater appeared to be on its way to having districts for local elections until a vote this week put the change on hold, if not ended it altogether.
The City Council picked a map last month that carved the city into four districts, and the council seemed poised to make the map official on Monday. But, in a surprise move, a split city council narrowly voted to reject the district map.
Councilmembers Cindy Vierra, Brian Raymond and Paul Creighton cast the three "no" votes. Raymond has voted "no" on previous map-related issues, but Creighton and Vierra, who originally approved the map, changed their votes on Monday.
The push against a change to districts threatens to lock the city into legal battles with voting-rights groups, but councilmembers said they were confident lawsuits, which would almost certainly stretch the already cash-strapped city’s budget, could be avoided and a compromise on district maps could be reached in the future.
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But others on the council weren’t so sure.
Mayor Jim Price said he was surprised by the change of heart. Price has said he does not think districts are best for Atwater, but the city, which already carries more than $2 million in debt, needs to avoid prolonged fights in court.
"I'm afraid we're going to wind up in court," he said on Tuesday. "(The vote) absolutely caught me off guard."
The change to districts was spurred by a June letter from the Malibu-based legal firm Shenkman & Hughes that threatened a lawsuit if the city did not voluntarily transition to districts.
The council members who voted "no" gave no explanation for their votes Monday night.
Creighton on Tuesday said he does not expect the city to be at risk of litigation because the process is on hold and a map will eventually be approved. "I think that we just had some questions on it," he said on Tuesday.
He stressed that he did not speak with the other members of the council before the meeting, but saw the opportunity to put the map on hold. The council has been accused in the past of violating public meeting rules.
Raymond on Tuesday said his thoughts about districts haven't changed, saying he's been against them from the beginning. "In big cities, I get it. There's a need for it," he said. "But, in small towns, I still don't think it's necessary."
He said he pulled the item out of the consent calendar to be voted on individually so he could "be consistent" with a "no" vote. The consent calendar typically is voted on as a whole and tends to be less controversial than other items.
The same three Atwater City Council members met at an Atwater restaurant in April after a council meeting, council members confirmed. They insisted the meeting was not planned, and that no city business was discussed.
Raymond, too, stressed that the council members did not discuss the item before the meeting.
The city's consultant for the move to districts estimated Atwater could face at least $150,000 in legal fees without the promise of victory if the case went to court. Many other cities around the state have moved to districts, including Merced and Los Banos.
Modesto, which tried to fight the change to districts, lost a lawsuit in 2008 that cost taxpayers $3 million before the city was required to move to districts.
In past elections, the city picked its mayor and four council members by citywide votes in "at-large elections.” About 53 percent of Atwater is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The sitting mayor and four council members are white.
The law firm argues the old system violates the state Voting Rights Act of 2001.