Lodi council considers changes to elections after legal threat
After recently receiving a letter from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund threatening legal action over the city’s at-large election system, the Lodi City Council will consider a resolution of intent to change to a districting system.
The decision was made on Tuesday after the council held a closed session to discuss how to move forward in response to the letter.
MALDEF, which said it acted after receiving complaints from Latino voters in Lodi, sent a letter stating that the current system used to elect city council members has diluted the Latino vote in the city and resulted in an underrepresentation of Latino residents on the council. The group says that Latinos in Lodi are a protected class and the system violates the California Voting Rights Act. The letter demanded that the city change its election system to a districting election system or face legal action.
According to City Manager Steve Schwabauer, there is a statutory process that allows cities to begin moving towards district elections and the first step in that process is to adopt a resolution of intention. The council is set to consider adopting the resolution during a meeting set for Dec. 12.
“The timing under the statutory process is very, very tight. There is a very limited time in order to do things and that’s why the Tuesday date is there rather than our regular city council meeting,” Schwabauer said.
If the council adopts the resolution of intention and the city moves forward with the change, Schwabauer said people running for the council in 2018 would have to run from the district in which they live in and would be running against others who reside in that district.
Districting maps would also have to be created, and would be drawn up on the advice of demographers who would come in and look at the city and make recommendations about logical break lines to create districts, Schwabauer said. There would also be a series of public hearings in both English and Spanish before the council would set the districts.
“It will be very important that the public participates in the process because we’re deciding the future of our community in terms of how our officials are elected and so the public should definitely be involved in helping to choose the district maps that govern the city if the council goes forward with that direction,” Schwabauer said.
Schwabauer said all these steps would occur sometime between now and April of 2018, and the districts would be in place for the election season.
“I do think that it is something that the council ought to consider,” Schwabauer said when asked if he thought the resolution was the best option for Lodi. “Why? There are a collection of 15 to 20 cities in California who have been threatened with litigation for having atlarge elections and every city that has fought it has lost and paid millions of dollars in the process. It’s a serious issue. It’s not a secret that Lodi’s budget is extraordinarily tight. There’s not a pile of money sitting out there that the council could invest in a fight if they were so inclined. So the question is what would we cut in services to oppose a fight about district elections, and that’s a serious question that the council has to answer.”
According to Schwabauer, the city of Modesto spent close to $1 million in attorney fees on their side and $3 or $4 million in attorney fees on the other side trying to fight the same battle.
“It’s not uncommon for cities in California who have fought it to end up spending somewhere between $1 and $6 million on the litigation by the time it’s all said and done, so it has the potential to have a very serious level of impact on the level of services the city can provide if they choose to invest the city’s resources in a fight,” Schwabauer said.