The Turlock City Council took the first step toward changing how the city elects its officials on Tuesday.
The council unanimously voted to start preparations for a November ballot initiative which will ask voters to adopt by-district voting.
The potential change comes as Turlock hopes to avoid a potentially multi-million dollar lawsuit. The city’s current voting system is potentially out of compliance with a state law intended to ensure minority rights.
“It's obviously cheaper for us to do this,” Turlock City Councilwoman Amy Bublak said. “It's also going to give more representation.”
If the ballot initiative is approved in November, Turlockers would no longer vote for all five members of council. Each resident would only be able to vote for one member of council, who would be tasked with representing a geographical district of Turlock. Only the mayor would likely continue to be selected at-large.
The change comes due to the California Voting Rights Act, which was passed by the state legislature in 2002. That law finds that cities can be held liable if they have large populations of protected-class citizens – generally speaking, ethnic minorities – but do not elect members of that protected class govern. That can happen as at-large votes allow a citywide majority to outvote a minority which may be prominent in some geographic regions.
Though the law is intended to increase diversity among elected bodies, that effect has yet to be seen in practice.
“The main impact, so far, has been financial,” said Doug Johnson of the National Demographics Corporation, a consultant hired by the City of Turlock.
The lawsuits which look to force compliance with the act have cost cities like Modesto $3 million, or Anaheim $1.2 million. The Madera Unified School District settled on the very day a case was filed against them, but attorneys asked for $1.8 million; that was later negotiated down to $162,000 for what amounted to a two-hour legal battle.
In Turlock, the issue comes as Latinos make up 36 percent of the city’s population, yet no elected officials are Latino. The ethnic group comprises about 25 percent of the city’s voting age population, a large enough share to, in theory, elect its own representative.
Turlock’s move to meet California Voting Rights Act standards was sparked by a letter from the Latino Community Roundtable, a local nonprofit group. Turlocker Bob Endsley, who sits on the Roundtable’s Board of Directors, noted that his group had no interest in suing the city, but hoped to prevent other money-hungry attorneys from suing.
“We are all proud to live and raise our families in Stanislaus County,” Endsley said. “We do not want any lawsuit here that will take money from any cities or school districts to go to money to go to people or lawyers out of the area.”
The Turlock Unified School District adopted by-district voting in 2010, also to avoid litigation. But there was one major difference: like all school districts, TUSD could make the shift without a ballot initiative.
The City of Turlock faces a sterner task in convincing residents to vote for the measure. If residents vote down the ballot measure, lawyers could use the result as potentially damning “evidence” of racism, making a huge lawsuit unavoidable.
A preliminary draft map of voting districts is expected next week. The Turlock City Council would then take a final vote to approve the districts on May 27 and June 10, in preparation for November’s ballot.
Two public workshops will be held to discuss the potential voting districts, currently scheduled for 6 p.m. May 7 at the Public Safety Facility training room, 244 N. Broadway, and 6 p.m. May 15 at the Pitman High School cafeteria, 2525 W. Christoffersen Pkwy.