Measure A, on the Nov. 4 General Election ballot, proposes a change in the way Turlock City Councilmembers are elected that would divide the City into four districts, with one member representing each.
Presently, the four councilmembers are elected “at-large,” meaning that voters may vote for any candidates in that election year regardless of where they reside within the City. If two seats are open, for example, voters are able to vote for up to two candidates and the top two citywide vote-getters would take the seats.
While the measure will not affect this election, TurlockCityNews.com reached out to City Council candidates for their thoughts on the issue; Sergio Alvarado, Donald Babadalir, Bill DeHart and Matthew Jacob responded.
Should the current method of the at-large election of councilmembers continue, the City would be potentially vulnerable to a legal challenge under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
“I’m only supporting Measure A because I don’t want the city to get sued,” said Alvarado. “The intent of these laws, like the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, on which this was based, do not always give the results they seek to create.”
Alvarado stated that the passage of the measure wouldn’t necessarily keep people from moving to run for a specific seat.
“It’s entirely possible that the measure will pass and the city could still get sued,” said Alvarado. “It’s not a failsafe. It’s extortion by out of town lawyers.”
The City of Modesto spent $1.7 million to fight a California Voting Rights Act case, which it ultimately lost, and was then forced to pay another $3 million in plaintiff’s attorney fees. Even lawsuits which are settled in a single day have ended in six figure settlements.
Bill DeHart, sitting councilmember running for reelection, said the measure was the right thing to do in terms of election protocols; he said it is a “must-pass.”
“The intent of this measure is actually two-fold; 1) to comply with the existing California Voter Rights Act provisions to ensure adequate and appropriate representation, and, 2) to eliminate any financial exposure to unscrupulous attorneys seeking to ‘cash in’ in situations where municipalities, hospital and school districts are not in compliance,” said DeHart.
“There may be a law eventually, that the "district" requirement would apply to municipalities greater than 100,000 in population, however, Turlock can neither afford delay nor payment of the potentially severe monetary penalty which the Measure's defeat would exact on us,” added DeHart.
The Act states that an “at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class.”
At-large elections have the potential to isolate certain voters, whereas district elections may have the potential to provide more accurate representation to certain demographic needs that can be manifested through geographic differences, according to the Act.
“I believe it will allow future candidates to focus their campaign outreach to specific areas within the city and that will in turn help them receive more targeted feedback from the areas they may later be elected to represent,” Jacob said in support of Measure A.
He noted that should the measure pass, residents will have a designated councilmember to contact with ideas or concerns.
In May, the current Turlock City Council selected a map that would divide the city into four evenly-sized voting districts.
Changes in the election process would take effect in 2016 for the two council seats up for election at the time, if Measure A is passed. In 2018, the remaining two seats would be elected in the same manner.
Babadalir stated that he believes voters should decide on the matter, but expressed his belief that the measure is only on the ballot due to threat of a lawsuit.
“One thing I like about Measure A, is that it breaks the city down into quadrants and so instead of a council candidate trying to reach out to an entire city of approximately 70,000 he [or] she is now reaching out to about a quarter of that,” said Babadalir. “There is potential for a more intimate connection between the candidate and the voters.”
“On the other hand. I should also state that one of the other reasons this was proposed was because some individuals felt particular ethnic groups are not being served. I think people should vote for a candidate based on his [or] her qualifications, will to serve the People, and adherence to the Constitution; not solely because of his [or] her ethnicity.”
Babadalir, just as DeHart, believes state legislation will likely be implemented on cities with a population more than 100,000.
“Regardless of the outcome, the State Legislature will likely have a bill setting a cut off as to how large a city's population needs to be before it must implement district elections and some estimate that number will be at least 100,000.”
Should Measure A be adopted, Mayoral candidates would continue to be elected at-large — all registered voters in the City would have the opportunity to vote for any Mayoral candidate; both mayoral candidates Gary Soiseth and Mike Brem expressed support for the measure at the League of Women Voters Candidate Forum in October.