Merced City Council unanimously ordered city staff on Monday to draw up an amendment to the city’s charter that would allow districts for its elections, saying it was just a matter of time before the city would have to drop its at-large system.
The decision came after the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a Latino civil rights group, warned the city it could face litigation without changes to the at-large system. In such a system council members are elected to represent the entire city as opposed to separate districts.
The civil rights group gave the city a deadline of May 1 for a “satisfactory response,” saying what it sees as a lack of representation could be remedied by a move to single-member district elections.
A spokesman for the group was not available to respond for this story by press time.
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Although Latinos make up more than 49 percent of Merced’s population, none of the six council members are Latino and there hasn’t been a Latino member in nearly a decade, according to the civil rights organization. With the exception of Councilman Noah Lor, who is of Hmong descent, the rest of the sitting council is made up of white men.
Mayor Stan Thurston said he supported a change to districts, a sentiment not opposed by the rest of the council. He said the council has been aware that the move would come eventually, perhaps when the city reached 100,000 people.
“Perception is reality,” he said. “And if there’s a perception that there’s an under-representaion of certain areas of the city, then I don’t think it’s a far cry for us to go the next step.”
The city plans to prepare the amendment so that it could be on the November ballot for a public vote.
A handful of Merced residents spoke about the issue before the council voted. “I believe that it will fundamentally alter the ability for disenfranchised communities to have influence in the outcome of elections,” Cindy Quiralte, 27, said.
See Lee, 31, said she believes there are qualified people in each part of the city that could hold “special knowledge and expertise” for each potential district, which would lead to better representation than the at-large system.
City Attorney Greg Diaz gave a presentation that covered a number of potential remedies, including the pros and cons of each, but said that none guaranteed the city would be safe from litigation. Even a change to single-member districts, the “preferred” remedy of state courts, could come with litigation if a group or person sees the process of drawing the district boundaries as improper, he said.
The council does not have to work out all of the kinks immediately. It has until August to submit an amendment to be on the November ballot.
If the amendment is rejected by voters, Diaz said, the city could still be sued and would be obligated to defend “the will of the voters” in court.
Other Central Valley towns have or are dealing with the same issue faced by Merced. Later this year, the Turlock City Council could consider putting a similar detailed plan before voters, City Manager Roy Wasden has said.
In July 2013, Ceres moved forward with district elections after a Latino group said the city’s at-large elections do not provide enough representation for minorities, violate the law and expose the city to litigation. The Los Banos Unified School District adopted districts in 2011 for a similar reason.
Several members of Merced‘s council said they expect November’s passing of Measure J, the move to align local elections with state and general election, to drum up voter turnout and improve representation.
Councilman Tony Dossetti said he hopes the city can do what it needs to do to spur discussion in the city about the change. He called the change a “big issue” that will take time and money to iron out.
“I would hope that the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund folks would participate in the community discussion and the community election prior to taking any other action,” he said.