Atwater City Council members reluctantly voted this week to move to districts, with multiple members saying they did so “under duress.”
The council voted 3-1 on Monday to formally make a move to districts for local elections. Mayor Jim Price was absent and Councilman Brian Raymond cast the dissenting vote.
Raymond said going to districts essentially limits voters on which council members they can approach with city business.
The change was spurred by a letter from the Malibu-based legal firm Shenkman & Hughes that threatened a lawsuit if the city did not voluntarily transition to districts.
3-1The vote to approve the move to districts
Councilman Paul Creighton said the law firm is using “shake down” tactics.
“If we don’t act, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting this,” he said. “We don’t have time, we don’t have the money to do this right now.”
“I think it’s a bunch of bull,” he said.
Modesto, which tried to fight the change to districts, lost a lawsuit in 2008 that cost taxpayers $3 million before the city was required to move to districts.
The law firm alleges Atwater’s electoral system discriminates against Latinos and violates the state Voting Rights Act of 2001.
I think it’s a bunch of bull.
Councilman Paul Creighton
The city of more than 29,000 people elects its mayor and four council members by citywide votes in “at-large elections.” About 53 percent of Atwater is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The sitting mayor and four council members are white.
Merced, Turlock and Los Banos went 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 to try to add 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.