Atwater last week was added to the list of central San Joaquin Valley cities pushed to move to local elections by district, the city attorney confirmed Friday.
Atwater’s electoral system discriminates against Latinos and violates the state Voting Rights Act of 2001, Malibu-based legal firm Shenkman & Hughes claimed in a letter received by the city on June 12.
The city of more than 29,000 people elects its mayor and four council members by citywide votes, often called an “at-large election.” About 53 percent of Atwater is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The sitting mayor and four council members are white.
53 percentThe Hispanic population in Atwater, according to the U.S. Census Bureau
“Atwater’s at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a ‘protected class’) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Atwater’s council elections,” the letter says.
Cities in the region such as Merced, Turlock and Los Banos have gone to district elections last year for the first time. Civil rights groups had threatened legal action in Merced and other area communities if changes were not made with the aim of adding diversity to elected offices.
The law firm uses Fernando Echevarria as an example of how the at-large system works against Latinos in Atwater. The 2014 candidate for City Council was able to get Latino support but not enough citywide support to win a seat, the firm argued in the letter.
In an interview in the fall with the Sun-Star, Echevarria said he was outspent by his opponents. Running an election in a district rather than across a city allows for a more level playing field for candidates with fewer resources, he argued.
I think it’s always best to have as many people to represent you as possible.
Councilman Paul Creighton, who was elected in November
Councilman Paul Creighton, who was elected in November, said he’ll wait for the next meeting with the city attorney and staffers to make up his mind on districts. The tipping point comes down to the arguments from the law firm, he said, and whether the letter is “a shakedown” or has sincere merit.
Residents in a town the size of Atwater can still get the ear of multiple members of the council, he said, adding officials in districts might be too focused on their own sectors.
“I think it’s always best to have as many people to represent you as possible,” he said.
Atwater’s at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a ‘protected class’) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Atwater’s council elections.
Shenkman & Hughes letter to Atwater City Council
Late last year, Councilman James Vineyard said the city should make the move to districts, noting Valley towns have not been successful fighting the change. “I’m trying to get ahead of the game,” he said in September.
Vineyard could not be reached for comment on Friday. Beyond adding diversity to the City Council, he has said, districts would give better representation to all corners of town.
Shenkman & Hughes recently threatened Huntington Beach with a similar lawsuit. The firm led successful efforts against Fremont and Costa Mesa, to name a few, with the nonprofit Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
The letter calls for Atwater’s leaders to voluntarily make a move to districts by July 21 or face a lawsuit. Atwater’s next regular meeting is June 26.