Merced makes plans for 6 districts

05/20/2014 8:14 PM

05/20/2014 10:25 PM

Merced will carve out six proposed districts for city elections before it asks voters to approve a change to the city’s charter, which would drop the at-large voting system for council seats.

With a 6-1 vote, Merced City Council decided this week to move toward drawing up six single-member council districts. Councilman Michael Belluomini cast the dissenting vote.

The mayor will continue to be elected by an at-large system. In such a system, the mayor and council members are elected to represent the entire city as opposed to separate districts.

The cost of developing districts through a dozen meetings, including the work of interpreters, a demographer and other costs is estimated at $72,000 to $145,000, according to an early estimate.

Belluomini said during the regular council meeting Monday that he would prefer that the city keep the option of double-member districts on the table at least until a citizens committee would be able to examine it. As mapping the districts draws closer, the city’s plan calls for a committee made up of citizens of Merced to be in charge of district designs.

Drawing up three districts represented by two seats on the City Council has some benefits worth studying, he said. For example, each voter would be involved in council elections every year rather than every other year.

Belluomini said added benefits for three larger districts could include less likelihood for incumbents to run unopposed and less likelihood for a seat to draw no candidates.

Though there are some examples of multimember districts around the country, no city in California uses such a system, according to City Attorney Greg Diaz. He said that’s a sign that it might not withstand a court battle, whether or not it is a good idea.

“There is nothing in (Belluomini’s) proposal I disagree with other than it doesn’t follow the current state of the law,” he said.

Diaz said single-member districts tend to be preferred by the Supreme Court, Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and California Voting Rights Act of 2002.

There is still no guarantee that the city will not face litigation. If voters reject the district amendment, the city could face a lawsuit.

Like many Valley towns, Merced is trying to avoid litigation related to what many see as a lack of representation in local government. Turlock officials have said they want to protect their city from a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act, which minority activists have used to push for districts.

The city of Modesto sued to overturn the law on the grounds that it appeared to give preference to certain races. The U.S. Supreme Court declined in 2007 to hear the city’s petition, and Modesto paid a $3 million settlement to attorneys for the other side.

The next year, voters approved a ballot measure that phased out the at-large system.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a Latino civil rights group, warned Merced in April it could face litigation if it did not change the at-large system to single-member district elections.

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 current council is made up of white men.

Barbara Padron-Livermore, president of the Merced Organizing Project nonprofit, said she believes the move to districts will increase the council’s diversity and the perspective offered by members of different backgrounds. “I think it’s moving in a positive direction, and I think people in the south will get fair representation, which they haven’t had,” she said.

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