Local Elections

Woodland’s last two mayors face off as city moves to new election format

Christina Grott and her daughter, Olivia, sit at the newly opened Stack’d & Brew’d restaurant in downtown Woodland, Calif., in January. Under new election rules, two prominent Woodland leaders, Mayor Jim Hilliard and Councilman Tom Stallard, must face off to represent the downtown district.
Christina Grott and her daughter, Olivia, sit at the newly opened Stack’d & Brew’d restaurant in downtown Woodland, Calif., in January. Under new election rules, two prominent Woodland leaders, Mayor Jim Hilliard and Councilman Tom Stallard, must face off to represent the downtown district. Sacramento Bee file

At least one Woodland councilman will lose his seat this year as the city moves to a new election system aimed at increasing diversity on the City Council.

Woodland voters will choose their City Council members in geographically based districts for the first time. The city in 2014 agreed to move from an at-large election system after the council was advised Woodland could face legal problems under a 2002 state law intended to ensure that large minority populations had government representation.

Latino residents comprise nearly half of Woodland’s population of 56,000, but only one member of the City Council is Latino.

The electoral switch is forcing Woodland’s last two mayors, Mayor Jim Hilliard and Councilman Tom Stallard, to face off in District 2, an area that includes downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. The race would have featured a third incumbent, but Councilman Sean Denny moved to avoid that showdown.

“It’s not comfortable,” to run against a colleague, Stallard said. “We’ve both been productive members of the council.”

After a map drawn by Stallard and then-Councilman William Marble received criticism for protecting incumbents from running against each other, the council nominated a special citizens commission to come up with the new boundaries, which put Hilliard, Stallard and Denny in the same district.

“It’s the hand that we were dealt,” said Hilliard, 60. The District 2 race also features Bobby Harris, who has run for Woodland City Council in elections dating back to 2008.

In previous contests, voters citywide chose the council members and the top vote recipients won seats. Woodland voters passed a ballot measure in 2014 to change to the new system as the city faced concerns it would run afoul of the 2002 California Voting Rights Act.

The state law outlaws at-large elections that can be proved to disenfranchise minority voters. In 2013, when city officials started talking about putting the measure on the ballot, only three Latinos had won seats on the council in the city’s history. Three years later, Mayor Pro Tem Angel Barajas is the only Latino on the council and the fourth to be elected.

Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, said district-based elections give sizable ethnic communities a chance to have their needs represented when they lack sufficient population, voter turnout or money to win elections on a citywide basis.

“They now have someone who literally represents their part of town,” she said. “Then the elected official has to stay abreast of what’s going on in their community.”

Romero said in her research, she often sees a change in elected bodies when they switch from at-large to district elections. Not just a change in the race or ethnicity of the members, she noted, but in income and life experiences as well.

However, she cautioned that changing the electoral process doesn’t eliminate the influence of money, name recognition or big networks. But at least the winning candidate is from the district, she said.

District 2 is 53 percent white and 41 percent Hispanic. Hispanic residents make up the largest ethnic group in three out of the four other council districts, according to census data, but that doesn’t mean they’re the largest group of registered voters in those districts.

Denny, the third incumbent, received the third-most votes behind Stallard and Hilliard when he was elected in 2012, and he decided to change his residence once the new lines were drawn.

The address listed on his candidate filing is 108 N. East St., which is a commercial building on a busy corridor across from railroad tracks. Denny said the building is owned by a friend, and he is living in an apartment inside.

He’s received some flak for the decision, but he said he wants to continue to serve because he wants to expand the revitalization of the downtown to the rest of the city, continue working to move a freight train line out of the city and address flood concerns.

“There’s a few haters out there who don’t like the idea that I’ve moved across the tracks to help another district,” said Denny, 54. “If (citizens in District 4) want someone who wants to work hard and bring up the standard of living ... if they want me to work hard for them, then I’m their guy.”

He’ll face Enrique Fernandez and Joe Romero Jr. for the seat. Joe Romero, 30, said he doesn’t like the idea of someone who isn’t from the district representing it.

“The spirit of redistricting was created for this very reason,” he said. “To have people who live in the district represent the district.”

Joe Romero, who has served on the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission for five years, said if elected, he wants to create a committee to find solutions for the growing homeless population in downtown Woodland.

He would also like to hire a few more police officers and firefighters and work on fostering a better relationship between police and the city’s Latino population. District 4 is 58 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white, and 10 percent Asian. Joe Romero and Fernandez are Mexican-American.

Fernandez, 27, said he wants to build up neighborhood groups to foster greater community engagement. He said he’d like more transitional housing and public works investment in the industrial parts of District 4, like fiber-optic internet for the businesses there.

No sitting council member lives in District 5 in the southeastern part of the city, which is 44 percent Hispanic, 39 percent white and 11 percent Asian. Three residents are vying for the seat, including the only female candidate out of the nine running this fall for City Council, Xóchitl Rodriguez. She is running against Brent Vann and James Vorhees.

As for the District 2 race, Stallard and Hilliard will try to convince voters that one has done more than the other as a councilman, while Harris will have to make the case that an outsider is best suited for the job.

Hilliard said he deserves more credit than Stallard for revitalizing Woodland’s historic downtown and bringing businesses into the area, including redoing the streetscape and updating lighting.

“You can’t find a parking space on Main Street on a Tuesday evening,” Hilliard said. “It’s a much more vibrant and exciting downtown.”

Stallard, 69, said he’s rehabbed 12 historic buildings on Main Street and developed restaurants and hair salons in the downtown area. Besides being a former Woodland mayor, Stallard has served as a Yolo County supervisor.

“I feel it’s fair to say that I had a lot to do with the revival of downtown Woodland,” he said.

Bee writer Phillip Reese contributed to this story. Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison