Woodland considers district elections to comply with voting rights act

Published: Saturday, May. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 12, 2013 - 2:55 pm

For much of Woodland's history, there have been two constants: Its City Council members have always been elected citywide, and they have nearly always been white.

Though Latinos constitute almost half of Woodland's residents – enough to be a plurality – none currently sits on the council. Only three have served in the city's 142-year history.

While Woodland's elections are nonpartisan, all five councilmen are registered Republicans in a city where Democrats hold a 43.7 percent to 30.4 percent voter registration advantage.

"If you look at the demographics, (the City Council) clearly doesn't reflect the city of Woodland," said former Mayor Art Pimentel, one of the three past Latino council members and a registered Democrat. "That's problematic."

More than a decade after lawmakers passed the California Voting Rights Act, Woodland and other California governments are shedding at-large elections in favor of using neighborhood-based districts to diversify their leadership ranks.

The 2002 law prohibits at-large elections – commonplace in much of the state – if it is shown the contests disenfranchise minority voters. It also gives groups the ability to sue to compel cities to change their election systems.

California Watch, a nonprofit investigative news group, last year identified 13 California cities where either Latino or Asian residents make up a majority but have all-white city councils. That list did not include Woodland, where Hispanics fall just shy of a majority at 47 percent, according to U.S. census data.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the city of Modesto and school districts in Ceres, Madera and Hanford have paid out sizable settlements to avoid court fights over their at-large elections.

At least 77 school districts have applied to the California Department of Education to change their systems from at-large to district-based to comply with the state's Voting Rights Act, said Joanna Cuevas Ingram, a voting rights fellow at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

"A lot of cities are confronting the issue," said Cuevas Ingram. "It's not only about increasing diversity, it's also about accountability. It's a good governance issue."

In an at-large election, voters select candidates from across a city or jurisdiction. In a district-based election, voters in a designated electoral area select a candidate who resides there.

At-large elections have been commonplace for years in California.

Tales of corrupt ward bosses, political machines and sweeping Tammany Hall-style influence over neighborhood elections in other states were fresh in the minds of early lawmakers.

But over time, concerns arose that at-large elections would allow higher-voting, wealthier, whiter electorates to trump poorer neighborhoods and those with large ethnic minority populations, said Paul Mitchell, president of Sacramento-based consultancy Redistricting Partners, which advises local governments on the voting rights act.

In Woodland, advocates for diversity say the long-standing contrast between the city's minority population and its council leadership demonstrates the need for change.

More than 26,000 of the city's 55,584 residents are Hispanic, according to U.S. census data. Supporters of district-based elections say concerns about underrepresentation have long played out at the ballot box.

Evelia Genera is among them. Genera was a Woodland Community College dean, Woodland school board member and principal at Woodland High School before retiring last year.

"I know the challenges people face in wanting to serve and run for office," Genera said. "But it's also about neighborhood representation. Ethically, we have a responsibility to the city of Woodland to make it more accountable."

City leaders back switch

Four current Woodland councilmen are practically neighbors, living within about a mile of each other in south Woodland.

According to 2010 census figures, four of the five council members live on blocks where fewer than 20 percent of residents are Hispanic. The fifth, Sean Denny, lives on a block with about 33 percent Hispanic residents.

Woodland leaders support the switch to district elections despite the likelihood that some council members would lose their seats because they live in close proximity. Last week, the council unanimously approved a committee recommendation to move to a district-based vote.

"We're of the firm belief that the intent of the (voting rights act), the requirements … are that we form districts within the city," said Councilman William Marble, who together with Councilman Tom Stallard made up the committee that explored the issue and recommended the change.

Woodland has slated a ballot measure on the issue for June 2014, with the first district-based elections set for 2016. Public comment, drawing district maps and preparing ballot language will likely go deep into this year, Marble said.

"We're adamantly behind anything that opens up the electoral process," said Mark Pruner, chairman of the Yolo County Republican Central Committee. "All five (council members) are Republicans in a city where Democrats have the registration edge, all are duly elected, and all are doing the right thing. They're all behind opening up the process."

In cities and towns across the state, minority voters and legal advocates have used the California Voting Rights Act to press for more equal representation in city, school and community college governance, going to court to fight for district-based voting.

Woodland officials had already considered the legal and financial ramifications of not complying, made clear by the city attorney in March.

"I think the city is vulnerable" to a lawsuit, then-City Attorney Andrew Morris told the Woodland City Council at its March 19 meeting. "If there is a large minority population in the city and there is a history of relatively few minority council members, you're vulnerable."

Esparto Unified School District, west of Woodland, was among the latest to switch to district-based voting in 2012 to avoid costly litigation with the Lawyers' Committee over its at-large system.

The group has won judgments against a handful of Central Valley school districts and cities, including Modesto, the first city to be sued under the act in a 2004 landmark case that cleared the way for future challenges.

Modesto ultimately settled the case in 2008 for a reported $3 million after the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court decision against the city.

'It's the law'

The Woodland Joint Unified School District and the sprawling Yuba Community College District, which includes a Woodland campus, moved to district-based elections within the last two years.

Jesse Ortiz, a Woodland Joint Unified trustee, co-chaired the committee that drew the district's new trustee boundaries.

"I always come back to, 'It's the law,' " Ortiz said. He said results of district elections were immediate: more Latino and female candidates, and challenged seats in three trustee races for the first time in decades.

"From the standpoint of challengers, it worked. From the standpoint of diversity, it worked. We're turning out more women than before," Ortiz said. "It's very positive for the city of Woodland."

Sacramento moved to district-based elections in 1971, and former mayor and state assemblyman Phil Isenberg credits the switch for producing a diverse class of council members that year: Robert Matsui, Anne Rudin and minister and African American leader Rosenwald "Robbie" Robertson.

As Woodland's does today, the Sacramento City Council at the time lacked geographic diversity. In 1969, Manuel Ferrales became the first member who lived north of the American River and joined a council that included five white men from Land Park.

"I will not tell you that district elections solve all problems for all time," Isenberg said, "but most Americans believe they should have neighbors who represent them. It's a strong theme."

Proponents of at-large elections fret that in district-based elections, candidates can win with a thinner slice of votes and that elected leaders may prioritize the needs of their districts above those of the city.

"There's a concern that you create these little fiefdoms" by drawing districts, said Mitchell of Redistricting Partners.

In a city such as Woodland, where voter turnout is typically about 36 percent – about 9,000 of Woodland's roughly 25,000 registered voters – some also have concerns about voter turnout shrinking with district-based elections.

"There's a concern that the community's not politically engaged. It might take 10 years for an area to develop a political infrastructure," Mitchell said. "But that's what the law is trying to do: create a political voice."

Call The Bee's Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040. Staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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