Central Valley

Modesto Latino discrimination lawsuit can proceed

Latino residents in south and west Modesto will get another chance in court to force the city and Stanislaus County to improve municipal services in their neighborhoods.

Judges at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal this week declined to throw out a lawsuit that charges the city and county discriminate against the neighborhoods, leaving the government agencies to answer for:

Comparably slow law enforcement response times in the Latino neighborhoods. It takes longer for a regional dispatch agency to steer an emergency responder to those neighborhoods than it takes to direct an officer to mostly white neighborhoods, according to data from 2004.

A municipal annexation policy that the Latino residents in the lawsuit allege discriminates against them.

Alleged discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, which the plaintiffs are trying to use to compel the government agencies to pay for better public services. They argue that a lack of sewers and sidewalks constitutes continuing discrimination against them.

"It's heartening to see that the courts understood the issue, and they understand it makes no sense to ban discrimination at the point of purchase and not any time subsequently," said Robert Rubin, legal director for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which is representing the Latino residents.

The latest ruling marks another chapter in a nearly 6-year-old lawsuit. The city and county swept the first round in the summer of 2007, when a federal judge in Fresno dismissed most of the claims because he did not see evidence of intentional discrimination against the Latino neighborhoods.

Judges at the 9th Circuit in October determined certain claims deserved a new hearing, but they rejected a potentially expensive charge that would have forced the county to install new sidewalks, storm drains and sewer lines in the neighborhoods. That decision stands.

The county contends it funds improvements to unincorporated neighborhoods as money becomes available and that Latino neighborhoods have benefited first from that policy.

County Counsel John Doering says the county's main liability centers on the law enforcement issues, which could compel the government agencies to take steps to improve dispatch times for emergency calls in the neighborhoods.

Most costly issues dismissed

The most expensive claims, however, have been dismissed.

"We were able to establish that there wasn't any discrimination related to the provision of infrastructure," Doering said. "We've always been open to trying to resolve this with them.

"If they could identify some things we can do to do better in the dispatch arena, we'd be open to that."

The neighborhoods at issue are unincorporated pockets that are surrounded by the city of Modesto. Modesto refuses to annex them until the county installs basic improvements, such as sewers and sidewalks.

The city contends that annexing the neighborhoods without those features would burden city taxpayers.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.