Every two years since 1918, Manteca residents have had a chance to vote to decide who fills two or three City Council seats.
That may be a thing of the past when the November 2022 election rolls around.
It’s because the City Council may opt to go to district elections for four council members before they are forced into it by a lawsuit.
The proposed capital improvement plans for the fiscal year starting July 1 includes $100,000 to retain the services of a demography firm to create four council districts. Election of mayor would still be citywide unless the council took steps to revert what happened before the 1980s when council members appointed a mayor to serve a year at a time from its own ranks such as is now the case in Ripon.
If that were to happen, which is highly unlikely, Manteca would have five council districts.
Much like the switch the Manteca Unified School District made in 2016, this would mean council members would have to reside in the district they seek to represent and only voters within that district can decide who is elected for a specific seat.
A previous council in 2018 first discussed exploring district elections. But after directing staff to retain a demographer on the cheap by approaching the University of the Pacific, nothing came of it. Members of the current council including Mayor Ben Cantu have also said they are in favor of such a move.
Funding for redistricting is being recommended by staff to get ahead of any potential lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act of 2002.
The final decision to switch to district elections is up to the council unless a formal complaint is lodged. 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.
The terms of the mayor as well as council members Dave Breitenbucher and Jose Nuño are up in 2022. Charlie Halford and Gary Singh’s terms end in 2024.
Based on the 2020 census, council districts that are created would represent roughly 22,000 people.
But it is not only the numbers of people that drives how districts are formed. They must create better opportunities for minorities to get elected.
The subject of district elections was raised in 2018 by Cantu, who was a candidate for mayor at the time. He made district elections a campaign issue but did not pursue it as an ethnicity issues even though he has Latino blood and there were no Latinos at the time on the council despite the 2010 census showing 36.8 percent of the city’s population as Latino compared to 49.6 percent being Caucasian. The only non-Caucasian on the council prior to the 2018 election was Singh, who is a Punjabi American.
Cantu instead was pursuing it from the perspective of neighborhoods being unrepresented on the council. At the time three of the five council members lived south of the 120 Bypass.
There are currently two Latinos on the council — Cantu and Nuño. Breitenbucher and Halford are Caucasian and Singh is Punjabi American.
Manteca has had only two other Latino office holders. They were Wayne Flores and Vince Hernandez. Neither ran as a Latino nor did Cantu or Nuño.
Why the ethnic makeup of the council matters has to do with the California Voting Rights Act of 2002 that requires district elections when it is determined citywide elections aren’t providing the opportunities for Latinos and other minorities to be elected.
No California City has ever prevailed in court after refusing to go to district elections when a complaint about the electability of Latinos or other minorities has been made. Modesto in 2008 ended up spending $3 million in its losing effort to retain district elections.
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 79 more cities have gone to district elections for councils including Visalia that also got slapped with a heavy legal payout by the courts. Most of the other cities switched when threatened by lawsuits.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com