Seeing a trend of cities in the region going to districts for local elections, the Atwater City Council decided this week to look into the process.
The city of about 28,000 people elects its mayor and four council members by citywide votes. The council voted 4-1 this week to have city staff members examine the process and its costs and report back.
Councilman James Vineyard cast the dissenting vote, saying a study would take too long. He argued that the city simply should move forward with district elections and set up a committee to oversee the process.
Cities in the region such as Merced, Turlock and Los Banos have gone to district elections this year for the first time. Civil rights groups have threatened legal action in Merced and other area communities if changes were not made with the aim of adding diversity to elected offices.
About 53 percent of Atwater is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The sitting mayor and four council members are white men.
It comes down to money, and that’s something the city, unfortunately, doesn’t have.
Atwater City Council member Brian Raymond
The November election for two council seats in Atwater have drawn four candidates, three of whom are white. But whether Atwater goes to districts soon is a matter of dollars and cents, according to leaders.
“It comes down to money, and that’s something the city, unfortunately, doesn’t have,” Councilman Brian Raymond said Wednesday.
Atwater is operating with a $3.6 million deficit in its general fund and leaders have tried in recent years to continue to find savings where they can. Raymond said the city needs to implement districts before it gets sued, but first needs to figure out if it is likely to be sued.
It was not immediately clear what the process would cost in Atwater. In 2014, Merced signed a $50,000 contract with National Demographics Corp., a Southern California consulting firm that has helped many cities and special districts draw up maps.
28,000Approximate population of Atwater
Merced also paid a settlement of $43,000 after being sued over the issue, according to city spokesman Mike Conway.
Raymond acknowledged the city’s current commissions and boards don’t have many minorities, but said that’s not by design. He noted the city has had more than one Hispanic mayor in the past.
The discussion on districts was placed on the City Council agenda this week by Vineyard. “I’m trying to get ahead of the game,” he said Wednesday. “We’re still struggling with the budget.”
Beyond adding diversity to the City Council, he said, districts would give better representation to all corners of town.
“Right now we have three council members that live fairly close together, probably within less than a half-mile, maybe a mile,” Vineyard said. “People have a tendency to not know who to go to.”
I think that’s what you’re seeing in Merced. There’s that opportunity and people start to think it is realistic for them to run.
Pablo Rodriguez, executive director of nonprofit Communities for a New California
Mayor Jim Price said he needs more information from the city’s staff before he can make up his mind, noting the city doesn’t have dollars to throw away.
“The bottom line for me is, are we creating a solution to a problem?” he said. “I don’t know that it’s an issue right now.”
The move to districts in Merced drummed up community involvement as the city drew its map, according to Pablo Rodriguez, the executive director of the nonprofit Communities for a New California. The group was involved in campaigns and efforts related to the change in Merced.
He also said the change to voting districts has drawn more candidates than in recent elections.
“District elections ensure that there’s geographic representation throughout the city,” he said. “Even though Atwater has a smaller population than Merced, at almost 30,000, it makes it more affordable. … I think that’s what you’re seeing in Merced. There’s that opportunity and people start to think it is realistic for them to run.”