Lodi is the latest California city to decide to create districts for its city council seats.
The city council reluctantly voted Tuesday to create districts for its five councilmember seats. A majority of the councilmembers said they were forced to vote in favor of district elections in order to avoid a million-dollar lawsuit.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund wrote a letter to the city in October threatening the suit claiming Lodi's "at-large" election system dilutes the Latino vote, and is therefore violating the California Voting Rights Act.
A California law enacted last year requires cities of more than 100,000 people to have district elections, but smaller cities like Lodi still get to determine their own system.
MALDEF President Thomas Saenz says the districts will give Latino residents a greater say. "It ensures there is representation of the Latino community's views, rather than it being completely frozen out from an at-large system," he said.
But Lodi Mayor Pro Tempore Joanne Mounce says switching to districts will pit council members against each other. "It's going to be doubly hard in my opinion to get anything done for the east side if we go to districts because everyone is going to be fighting for their own district," she said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Mounce says constituents like being able to vote for all seats, “so that they know that if something happens in their neighborhood, they have a choice between the five people that sit up here to call and say, 'help me.'"
Saenz countered that the “at-large” system is actually less representative than Mounce makes it sound. "It means that minority voters basically get out-voted virtually every time," Saenz said. “They often result in only one or two neighborhoods being represented at all."
Lodi City Attorney Janice Magdich says this year more than two dozen California cities have converted to districts or are currently in the process, often to simply avoid a lawsuit. "There is not a single city in the state of California that has been successful in fending off a lawsuit alleging violation of the California Voting Rights Act," Magdich said.
MALDEF’S letter claims Lodi’s voting population is 20 percent Latino and yet there is no Latino currently on the council, nor has there ever been a Latino councilmember.
Magdich says she is unaware of Lodi ever having a Latino city council member, but says there haven't been many Latino candidates either. "In the last 15 years I believe there is only one individual who is Latino who even ran for city council," Magdich said, adding that another challenge is getting people out to vote.
The council now has 90 days to host five public hearings and approve a plan for districting the city. The city wants to gather input from the public on how to draw the districts and is planning to put an interactive map of potential district lines up online in January. The first hearing will be held Dec. 20.