Manteca’s neighborhoods are going under the microscope of demographers in a bid to insulate the city against a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.
The City Council this week took steps to determine whether there are concentrations of minorities clustered in defined neighborhoods that would trigger a successful lawsuit to force district council elections based on ethnicity make-up. A lawsuit could end up costing Manteca taxpayers millions of dollars.
The council on a 4-1 vote with Richard Silverman dissenting directed staff to ask the University of Pacific regional center’s graduate students to analyze census tracts within the city to determine their ethnic makeup. That information would be used to demonstrate one way or another if minorities are under represented on the council using neighborhoods as a measuring stick.
Silverman wasn’t against the research being done. He believes the city would be wiser to spend $35,000 to hire a professional instead of relying on graduate students to provide information that could prove critical in avoiding a legal entanglement that could impact the city budget.
“I think district elections are coming,” Silverman said. “They’re inevitable.”
Mayor Steve DeBrum pointed out that the UOP regional business center is highly regarded and is the go to institution for economic forecasting and demographics involving the Northern San Joaquin Valley counties of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced.
The proposal to utilize UOP graduate students came from resident Al Moncada who said he’d prefer the city to use the $35,000 for other endeavors such as additional police support staff.
Moncada, who moved to Manteca 19 years ago, doesn’t believe the city will be found in violation of the intent of the law.
“We like our city elections the way it is (now),” Moncada said. “I like to elect who I want to the city council.”
If the city switched — or forced — to district elections, candidates would have to live in specific districts and only voters within that district would cast ballots. The mayor’s post would still be citywide.
Jose Nuno, a Manteca Planning Commission member who is seeking election to the council on Nov. 6, told the council that housing experts have praised Manteca for being one of the most diverse and integrated communities in California.
Study is a pre-emptive move against lawsuits
City Manager Tim Ogden said his request for a demographic analysis was a pre-emptive move to avoid Manteca from being caught flat-footed should they receive a letter challenging the electability of minorities in Manteca with the citywide election format now in place.
He said a demographic study is a way to provide the city with hard facts that could be used — depending on what it yielded — to either insulate the city against a lawsuit or to prompt council members to move forward with district elections.
Ogden stressed neither the demographic study nor the action the council took Tuesday night means that district elections will happen. It is simply to arm the city with facts that it could use to determine a course of action in the future or minimize legal exposure should they be sued.
However, if the city receives just one letter invoking the 2002 California Voting Rights Act, City Clerk Lisa Blackmon said the city has only 45 days to respond.
Councilwoman Debby Moorhead preferred the course Manteca is taking that would allow it to use the information gathered to present the question to the community. That effort would be short circuited if the city’s voting process is challenged in the meantime.
Ogden went through the process when he was city manager of Waterford after all cities in Stanislaus County received letters. The results Waterford had from demographic research suggested strongly they weren’t in violation of the 2002 law. Several San Joaquin County cities have received such letters including Lodi.
If city is opts— or is forced —to move to district
elections a specialist would need to be hired
Should Manteca be challenged, Ogden noted the city would have to hire a specialist that is likely to cost much more than $35,000 for a more exacting study to draw district boundaries to meet the criteria laid out in the 2002 California Voting Rights Act.
That expense would not be required if the city is not formally challenged or if the council — after seeking input from the community minus such a latter — opts not to switch to district elections.
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 two 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 pau a large legal bill. Last November none 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.
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.
If the city moves to change to district elections by ordinance within the prescribed time after receiving such a complaint, there is a $30,000 limit on the amount cities must reimburse attorneys or groups that challenge the election system providing no lawsuit is filed against the city.
Manteca Unified has always had the requirement that board members must reside within a specific area or district but voting was districtwide until two years ago when the district switched to area elections.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com