City narrows its district options

07/18/2014 1:12 PM

07/23/2014 7:36 PM

The City Council voted 4-1 Wednesday to narrow its map options for by-district voting to one.

An ordinance putting the option to switch City Council elections from at-large to by-district voting, along with Draft Map 3, will be brought to the July 30 meeting.

“Plan three keeps downtown all together in one seat,” demographer Doug Johnson of National Demographics Corp., told the council. “This is probably the most compact plan.”

The lone dissenting vote came from Councilwoman Elizabeth Stonegrove, whose concern with Map 3 is that three of the four districts contain territory south of Highway 152. Four of the current council members live south of 152, with Mayor Mike Villalta the only one who lives north of the highway.

“My concern with Draft Plan No. 3 is right now we have really heavy representation south of 152,” Stonegrove said. “And in Draft Plan Number 3, you have three districts that come south of the highway, so you have the potential for a council member in Gollege Greens, you have the potential for a member from Presidential or Cresthills, and a council member from the Teal Landing, Cardoza, Birch area.”

Stonegrove wanted the council to narrow it to Plan 3 and Plan 2, which also received some support. Plan 2 would have split the downtown area among three districts. But with the Aug. 8 deadline for putting the ordinance on the November ballot, the rest of the council voted to move ahead with Plan 3. Four maps for dividing Los Banos were under consideration. There was also a map proposed by the public that did not get much traction.

While the previous meeting focused on public comment about whether districting is a good idea, the July 16 meeting focused more on the four maps themselves, which is what the council was looking for. Julian Mencias, a founding member of the Community Advocacy Coalition, spoke during the public comments to say the CAC endorsed Plan 2, but would also accept 1 or 3.

The Community Advocacy Coalition was the catalyst for the push to by-district voting, citing the California Voter Rights Act of 2001 and the fact that the council has had no Hispanic representation in a town that is 68 percent Hispanic. Johnson gave the council an update on activity regarding the law around the state, pointing out a lawsuit that was filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in the last two weeks against Bellflower, a city of about 75,000 in southern Los Angeles County, and the decision by Riverbank, a town of about 23,000 northeast of Modesto. Turlock is also going through the process.

Modesto itself shifted to by-district voting in 2009 after a legal battle.

RTIF and MCAG

The City Council unanimously promoted more partnership with the rest of Merced County with a joint branding memorandum of understanding to encourage economic development. No money is involved.

In another matter, the council decided by a 3-2 vote to direct Public Works Director Mark Fachin to come back with a resolution suspending all Regional Transportation Impact Fees (RTIF) from residential construction. That money is then pooled and controlled by the Merced County Association of Governments to fund regional projects such as the Los Banos Bypass. Money set aside for the proposed realignment of a portion of Highway 152 around Los Banos to Highway 165 was re-purposed last year for a project in Merced.

RTIF money applies to those who are increasing a building. The fees would be charged to those who pull residential building permits. The city had already suspended its RTIF fee collection from commercial and industrial land use. This would expand that suspension to all land use permits.

Villalta, who led the charge, cited the MCAG’s preoccupation with projects on the east side of the county. Stonegrove, one of the dissenting votes, said the suspension was a terrible idea.

“I think that development should pay its way in communities,” Stonegrove said.

Councilman Scott Silveira, the other dissenting vote, balked at the idea that the move was more of a shot at MCAG than anything else. “We have nowhere to put it locally,” he said. “We don’t have a plan.”

Councilman Tom Faria mentioned that the MCAG has spent $400 million on other projects since labeling the Los Banos bypass it’s No. 1 priority. “This RTIF thing is a black hole,” he said “We do need to send a message to revamp this thing.”

Villalta said he would be at Thursday’s MCAG meeting to voice his displeasure.

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