In a move it is referring to as an “advisement,” but taken as “extortion” by some city officials, a Latino organization is recommending that the pint-sized six square mile town of Oakdale implement district elections for its city council and school board elected offices.
The Latino Community Roundtable, an assembly of elected and appointed officials in 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.”
“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.”
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 because of the mandates placed on the much geographically larger and heavily Hispanic populated jurisdictions of Modesto and the Madera School District which have fought and lost in the courts.
“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 a 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.”
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 get a ‘not-in-my-district’ type representative or someone who starts looking out for only their area’s interests. Politicians then start making deals to support each other’s proposals rather than looking out for the entire city.”
For the entire story, read the March 27 edition of The Leader.