The incoming City Council, including Mayor-Elect Gary Soiseth, Councilmember-Elect Matthew Jacob, and reelected Councilmember Bill DeHart will have the opportunity to determine City District assignments per the newly adopted Measure A at the Dec. 9 City Council meeting.
Measure A, the proposed initiative to change the manner in which City Council elections are held passed with 73.96 percent voter approval on Nov. 4; elections will be changed from at-large to district elections, dividing the City into four districts with one elected councilmember representing each.
The Mayor of Turlock would continue to be elected at-large and anyone from any district would be able to vote in the Mayoral race.
Though there was no impending legal action being taken at the time of the City putting the measure on the November ballot, the City attempted to rid itself of a potential legal challenge under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
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,” according to the Act.
The City of Modesto spent $1.7 million fighting and ultimately losing a California Voting Rights Act case; it was forced to pay an additional $3 million in plaintiff’s attorney fees.
The districts, which divide Turlock in four equal districts, were created by the City Council in May and are in line with State and Federal laws that require each district to be approximately equal in population; adjustments based on new census data are allowed without voter approval.
Changes will take effect in 2016 for the two council seats up for election at the time and in 2018 the remaining two seats will be elected in the same manner.
Seats currently belonging to Councilmembers Amy Bublak, first elected in 2008 and reelected in 2012, and Steven Nascimento, first elected in 2012, will be the first subjected to district elections.
Bublak, won in 2012 as top vote-getter with 7,622 votes, for a total of 32.32 percent; Nascimento won the other seat with 6,865 votes for a total of 29.11 percent among two other candidates and write-in votes.
Starting in 2016, the two even-numbered districts, 2 and 4, will be up for election, and in 2018, odd-numbered districts, 1 and 3. Councilmembers are elected to serve four-year terms.
As all current councilmembers have been elected at-large, meaning by the total population of Turlock voters, as long as they are otherwise eligible to serve, regardless of where residence, they will still be able to serve on the Council during the transitional period to fulfill their elected term.
Going forward, in the 2016 election where two council seats will open, only residents of districts 1 and 3 will be eligible to vote for a representative of their respective district; likewise, only residents of those districts will be able to run.
Should a councilmember not reside in their assigned district, they are able to run to represent it, but are not able represent two districts should they be elected to their respective district.
At the upcoming Council meeting on Dec. 9, the newly sworn in Council will vote to approve the designation of DeHart to represent District 3 and Jacob to represent District 1 for the reason, according to the City staff report, that they currently reside in those districts; the item was put on the agenda, and recommended by City Manager Roy Wasden.
While logic does follow in appointing DeHart and Jacob to their respective districts of residency within the City, it is unclear why another method was not used.
The adoption of this measure has the potential to give unfair advantage to DeHart should he seek reelection, essentially forcing Bublak, who resides in District 3, out of the Council when her term ends in 2014.
Should Bublak wish to serve on the Council after the expiration of her term, she would either have to wait two years to run against DeHart, or move to either District 2 or 4.
It is noted in the agenda that the alternative to assigning Jacob and DeHart to their districts of residency would be assigning them to districts they do not reside in.
Conversely, assigning the districts to not favor any one member could potentially be seen as a more neutral, fair approach considering the advantage lent to DeHart in the proposal, though it could lead to further complications should members run for reelection.
Norton did not return request for comment to further clarify the language and implications of Measure A.
Turlock City Council will meet Tuesday at 6:00 p.m at City Hall, 156 S. Broadway, in the Yosemite Room.