The Lathrop City Council – which boasts one of the most diverse make-ups of any city governing board in the Northern San Joaquin County – decided on Tuesday that the city will have to wait for at least another election cycle before taking the steps to switch to district-based voting.
A motion to approve the staff recommendation to begin the steps to make the switch – in order to come into compliance with the California Voting Rights Act, which states that public agencies are barred from using at-large elections if it means that protected classes aren’t able to elect the candidates of their choice or influence an election – that was backed by Lathrop Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal and Councilwoman Martha Salcedo, failed to pick up a third vote.
If the council were to have moved forward with the proposal, which was recommended by city staff, a proposal would have been brought back at a future council meeting and a professional demographer and governing district consultant would have been sought to assist with the process. Public outreach efforts also would been considered.
Dhaliwal, who backed the staff recommendation, said that it’s something that the city is going to have to adopt at some point.
“If we are challenged on this issue, we’ll have to come into compliance because it’s a state law,” Dhaliwal said. “If we had started the process it would have put us in a better situation to defend the city in case of a challenge.
“The majority of the council didn’t agree.”
Diversity, historically, hasn’t been an issue for Lathrop, which already boasts one of the most racially diverse councils in the entire Northern San Joaquin Valley. Dhaliwal, who is Punjabi, made headlines when he was elected mayor, and he is joined by Vice Mayor Paul Akinjo, who is Black, Councilman Steve Dresser, who is of Filipino heritage, Councilwoman Martha Salcedo, who is Hispanic, and Councilman Mark Elliott, who is Caucasian.
The proposed switch wouldn’t have affected Dhaliwal, who would still be elected at-large, but would have altered the way that the remaining council members ran for their respective seats. The proposal would have used the information gathered from the 2020 census to determine the districting for the council election in 2022. The upcoming election, and the 2020 election itself, would not have been affected.
Given Lathrop’s pending population boom – with 11,000 new homes set to be constructed in River Islands alone – the proposal could also have created a situation where regions within the city, would be underrepresented on future councils.
Dhaliwal said that the decision Tuesday night, which was included on a short special agenda, will be revisited in the future when the city is better aligned and prepared to make the switch.
Manteca is currently in the process of undertaking a demographic study to determine whether there are underrepresented populations with in the city as a preemptive measure against legal action challenging the legitimacy of its elections. Such an issue happened locally in 2008 when the City of Modesto was sued, citing a violation of the California Voting Rights Act, and the city spent more than $3 million unsuccessfully defending itself.
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