LEMOORE — With its back against the wall, so to speak, the city of Lemoore has declared its intent to have district-based elections starting in the November 2018 election.
At a specially-held Lemoore City Council meeting Wednesday evening, Council discussed transitioning from at-large elections to district-based elections for council members and voted unanimously to move forward with the process.
Lemoore currently uses an at-large election system, meaning voters from the entire city choose each member of the City Council. The candidates with the most votes are the people elected to the council seats.
A district-based election system is where the city is physically divided into separate districts, and each district has one councilmember who lives in the district and is chosen by the voters who also live in that district.
City Manager Nathan Olson said the city was planning on moving to district-based elections starting during the November 2020 election, but had to get the ball rolling a lot sooner due to some outside factors.
A staff report stated that the city received a letter in November from an attorney in Malibu who said the city’s at-large elections system violates the California Voting Rights Act and inhibits diversity within elected official positions. The letter also allegedly threatened the city with litigation if it does not voluntarily convert to district-based elections.
Mayor Ray Madrigal said Lemoore was perhaps one of the last cities to be given one of these letters, which he said attorneys have been sending to other cities throughout the state. He said not one city that has fought the demands has prevailed, citing the city of Palmdale, which spent $4.5 million on litigation.
“I think we really have our backs against the wall at this point,” Madrigal said. “I think it would be foolhardy for us to even consider fighting this any longer.”
Councilman Eddie Neal said he believed that the voters in Lemoore have a right to vote for all the council members and that whoever has the majority of votes should win; however, he didn’t want to spend the taxpayers’ money fighting for something when the city is essentially being strong-armed.
“To me, it’s risk management,” Councilman Dave Brown said, adding he didn’t think the city was up to taking on that risk.
Tom Reed, a resident of Lemoore and frequenter of council meetings, told council during public comment that his only concern would be gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of district boundary lines for political advantage.
Olson assured Reed that there would be no gerrymandering and the demographers would not know where the current councilmembers live. He also said the demographers have several options in seeking public input, including computer programs where residents can access a website and try their hand at creating a district map with boundaries.
“I think it’s important that we get enough people here to talk,” Olson said about ensuring public input. “But, Lemoore is eight-and-a-half square miles — I think it’s going to be hard to come up with more than a few maps for this town, anyways.”
Madrigal said it is a testament to the residents of Lemoore that there is already a diverse council and he sees nothing wrong with the way residents vote, but said it’s just something the city has to do. He said members will do the best they can to make sure the public has a voice and that everything is done fairly.
Councilwoman Holly Blair agreed, saying Council didn’t want to have to change the election style, but it would be the most responsible thing to do with the options they have been given.
“This is not being done because we somehow believe that this is necessary in our community. We already have a lot of good representation here, it looks very diverse,” Blair said. “We are representative of the community, but we are at a point where it will cost a lot more to kick this down the road than if we do it now.”
Blair moved to pass the resolution and declare the city’s intent to move toward district-based elections, which was passed 4-0 with Councilman Jeff Chedester absent. The cost of the process is not to exceed $50,000 and will come out of city reserves.
Because a resolution was passed, the city must now hold two public hearings within 30 days of each other, hire a demographer to draw up several map options and then hold three more public hearings before adopting a final ordinance. The entire process has to take place within 90 days.
The first two councilmembers that the change would affect are Madrigal and Chedester, whose terms are up in November 2018. Olson said the other three members would still be allowed to finish their terms, which end in 2020.