Lodi coun­cil con­sid­ers changes to elec­tions af­ter le­gal threat

Lodi News-Sentinel - - Front Page - By Danielle Vaughn NEWS-SEN­TINEL STAFF WRITER

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.

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