Manteca could switch to district-election by council members by 2026 without obtaining voter permission to do so.
That’s when — at the current numeric gain of 2,759 new residents a year — Manteca will top 100,000 residents. Under recent state law changes, cities in excess of 100,000 residents can by a majority vote of the council adopt an ordinance imposing district elections.
The issue of possibility of Manteca switching to districtwide elections came up in early 2018 when Lodi was notified it could possibly face a California Voters Right lawsuit if it didn’t switch to district elections in a move backers of the state act contend allows a broader representation of minorities on city councils, school boards, and other elected local boards.
To avoid being subject to a possible letter and subsequent lawsuit City staff was directed to possibly contact the University of Pacific regional business center — a highly respected institution that deals in social-economic trends for the Northern San Joaquin Valley — to analyze how district elections might play out locally.
City Manager Tim Ogden noted it wasn’t necessary to have a study after the election as staff determined the city wouldn’t likely be open to a voting rights challenge.
That’s because the council ethnic composition went from four Caucasians and one Punjabi American to two Caucasians, two Hispanics and one Punjabi American.
The change in the state law gives city councils of cities once they reach 100,000 residents the option to decide by ordinance instead of a vote of the people to switch to district elections if they are faced with a challenge under the voting rights act.
If Manteca is challenged under the voting rights act, Ogden noted in early the city would have to hire a specialist for a specific study to draw district boundaries to meet the criteria laid out in the 2002 law.
No California City has ever prevailed in court after refusing to go to district elections when a complaint about the electability of Hispanics or other minorities has been made. Modesto in 2008 ended up spending $3 million in its losing effort. Most recently, the City of Palmdale in Southern California had to pay out $4.5 million in legal costs
Prior to the Voting Rights Act adoption in 2002, only 28 of California’s 482 cities had district elections. After the law was passed, nine went to them including Modesto that had to be sued to switch. In the past four years 22 more cities have gone to district elections for council including Visalia that also got slapped with a heavy legal payout by the courts. Most of the other cities switched when threatened by lawsuits.
Visalia, which is 46 percent Latino, never has had a Latino council member. They declined to switch when a complaint was made, failed to do so, got sued, lost, and were forced to pay a large legal bill. In 2017 November no Hispanics got elected to the council because no Latinos ran for the two seats that were available.
The law is based on geography groupings of districts as much as on ethnicity. That means if a city has neighborhoods that are fairly well integrated that would produce Latino majority districts.
The California Legislature in 2016 adopted a law that would give cities some protection from massive legal bills and to give them time to take steps to avoid lawsuits. The law gives cities 135 days to switch to district elections through the ordinance process after it is warned it could be in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Manteca Unified switched to district elections a few years ago. The district always had the requirement that board members must reside within a specific area or district but voting was districtwide until four years ago when the district switched to area elections.
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