In a move it is referring to as an “advisement,” but taken as “extortion” by one city official, a Modesto Latino organization is recommending that the smaller-sized six-square-mile town of Oakdale implement district elections for its city council and school board elected offices.
Demand for Districts not Racial
The Latino Community Roundtable, an assembly of elected and appointed officials from Modesto, sent a letter to both the city and school district in February demanding that council members and school board trustees be elected to represent specific districts within the city, replacing the current at-large election process.
When contacted, Maggie Mejia, president of the Latino Community Roundtable, cited the 2001 California Voting Rights Act that made it easier for minority groups to sue governments that use at-large elections on the grounds that they dilute the strength of minority votes.
“If Oakdale does not immediately adopt district elections, we will file a lawsuit to seek judicial relief on behalf of Oakdale residents,” Mejia wrote in the letter to city officials. “We will ask the court to impose district elections immediately, to draw the new district maps and to enjoin any attempts by Oakdale City Council to perpetuate the current election scheme.”
Mejia claims the request is not a “racial issue.” She claimed she wanted to see cities get in compliance with the law and to stop wasting legal fees in an attempt to fight the issue, which has been supported by the courts in at least three recent cases.
“With the population of Latinos scattered throughout Stanislaus County, it needs to be equally represented,” said Mejia. “I get upset when innuendos are out there we’re doing this for the money.”
Mejia said cities that have fought the lawsuits have all lost and those making the money were all out-of-town attorneys.
“If we had written a mushy letter with love and kisses, it wouldn’t have been taken seriously,” said Mejia. “I had to send a harsh letter for them to wake up and smell the coffee.”
Council Unified in Opposition
The sometimes divided city council members of Oakdale are all showing a unified opinion in opposition to the proposal that they’ve all said puts them in a “no-win” situation. The much geographically larger and heavily Hispanic populated jurisdictions of Modesto and the Madera School District have fought the matter and lost in the courts leaving other cities with no case decisions to fall back on for support.
“This is a matter of extortion,” said Councilman Don Petersen. “They’re telling us, ‘Do as we tell you or you’re going to spend massive amounts of money to defend your actions.’ I think we’re being forced to do something stupid and spend money we don’t have.”
Petersen said the city would either have to pay money on a consultant to draw up district boundaries or pay an attorney to fight the matter.
Mayor Pat Paul identified a number of problems with the proposal, ranging from no one definite “Hispanic area of town” to no listed contingency if no one from one designated district would run for office.
“How many voters do we have in this town?” Paul asked. “What do we really gain with this? It’s a trap. We don’t have money to fight it and those that have tried, have lost in the courts.”
In the last election the city had roughly 7,000 voters cast ballots and eight persons run for three open city council seats.
Councilman Tom Dunlop brought up another hindrance of the plan that would affect a city of Oakdale’s small-in-comparison size.
“What you end up getting is a council representative that doesn’t worry about the city as a whole, but only his district,” said Dunlop. “Citizens as a whole get someone who starts looking out for only their area’s interests and becoming a ‘not-in-my-district’ type representative. Politicians then start making deals to support each other’s proposals rather than looking out for the entire city.”
Councilman Farrell Jackson echoed Dunlop’s concerns about district priorities becoming more important than city ones, adding that in the past no one side of the town has been favored over another.
Jackson also said the city has had Hispanic leadership in the past with the late Elmo Garcia being both mayor and a councilman from 1968 to 1994 and city treasurer from 2000 to 2004.
“I don’t see how this would serve the population of Oakdale,” Jackson said. “I don’t think the size of Oakdale being 20,000 would warrant this move. It would be costly to draw up these boundaries.”
Less Costly Campaigns?
Another advantage for district elections according to Mejia was lower campaign costs where a candidate only had to focus a run for office to a particular district.
Both Jackson and Councilman Mike Brennan dispute the argument.
“I didn’t spend one red cent on the last election,” said Brennan, who gathered 1,749 votes to victory. “I don’t think I spent anything the time before that other than my time.”
“We’re still small enough where you can walk all the neighborhoods and knock on all the doors during a campaign,” said Jackson.
Matter To Be Discussed
All councilmembers agreed that the move to district elections for the city was inevitable and the city would have to concede to the request despite how the citizens felt due to the fact that there is no revenue available for a legal battle and the history of court challenge losses by other entities.
According to council members, the item is planned to be discussed at an upcoming Oakdale City Council meeting.
The Oakdale Joint Unified School District already has two board members from its “feeder districts” and three from within the city. It is also up for discussion at an upcoming meeting.
Mejia said the roundtable had sent similar letters to other local cities, including Turlock, Patterson, Ceres, Riverbank and Hughson.