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SELMA – After a 3-2 vote, elections for future Selma City Council seats will be determined by five districts, not four and a mayor-at-large position.

The decision was made at the July 15 Council meeting to comply with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

The decision did not come easily as the meeting devolved into arguing, councilmembers speaking over one another, accusing each other of financial mismanagement and that decisions were being fueled more by their egos than the good of the City.

Mayor Scott Robertson, Mayor Pro Tem Louis Franco and Council Member Jim Avalos’ terms all expire in November 2020. Councilmembers John Trujillo and Sarah Guerra’s seats are up for election in 2022. However, with the new districting process, even which districts would come for election next must be determined. Those decisions will be made over a series of five public hearings and a final map adoption on Oct. 7.

The public can propose maps as to how they feel the city should be divided into districts. The deadline to do so is Aug. 19 for a Sept. 3 meeting.

During the prior July 1 meeting, Demographer Douglas Johnson with National Demographics Corporation was hired to lead the City through the districting process.

Robertson said he felt voters should vote for the mayor as an at-large position in addition to four districts.

“The public should decide whether they want to elect their own mayor, in my opinion, and be apprised of the risks of doing that. It’s their choice,” Robertson said at the July 1 meeting. He said he’d heard from numerous citizens that they preferred to elect who would serve as mayor rather than go by seniority, or having council members make the decision. The city’s management, however will still by lead by its city manager.

“It doesn’t change the type of mayor,” Robertson said. “It doesn’t make it, at least, from what I’m seeing here, doesn’t make it a strong mayor. It’s still a city manager form of government. But it would allow the people to elect, in effect, the spokesperson for the council. The person is often times the person who speaks up for the Council and goes to the ribbon cuttings and represents the city. It would also not give an extra, enhanced vote. It’d still be one vote [for whoever is mayor],” he said.

Franco disagreed and focused on the legal liabilities having a combined voting system would create.

“Having that would put us at risk [of a lawsuit]. The very fact our infrastructure is in such disarray right now, and we’re talking about mayor-at-large, is why we need term limits. If this Council, and you’ve seen it, if we’re not going to work together to better the community, then let’s move aside and let some other community members have the opportunity to do that.”

Franco went on to accuse the mayor of being driven more by his ego, than the City’s best interests.

“Quite honestly, we’re here because Scott, you want to be mayor. Your ego wants to be mayor and we don’t need that. We just need to work together. We’re going to go to districts because the City is growing and there are a lot of good people who could be on this Council. It doesn’t have to be us.

We need to put the community first.”

Councilwoman Sarah Guerra said she disagreed that residents haven’t asked to vote for the mayor.

“I know there’s a lot of citizens, in going door to door, that asked me the same thing, ‘why don’t we get to vote for our own mayor?’ This gives an opportunity for the citizens to put it on the ballot. You can choose whether you want the mayor or you don’t, but at least the citizens have a choice.”

Councilman Jim Avalos argued that having the rotation system allows the mayor pro tem to get training prior to serving as mayor.

“In government, we have to learn from each other. Franco, now you’re the mayor pro tem, you fall in that category. By doing that, you become a better servant in the community. We’re not 165,000 people in the City of Selma. We’re a small community still and we still need that additional help of working together through the rotation.”

Councilman John Trujillo focused on the legal and financial risks of the issue.

“I believe our legal staff has told us we’d be in legal liabilities if we don’t have five districts. I think it’s in the best interest of the community to make sure [about] every dollar we spend from the general fund. But for things like this, it’s not right.”

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Robertson said it had been estimated the cost to place a council-sponsored initiative on the ballot to vote for the mayor’s position would be $2,500 to $3,000.

But according to the professional demographer, City Attorney Bianca Sparks Rojas and City Manager Teresa Gallavan, the legal costs could run into the millions if the City were sued for not completely complying with the California Voters Rights Act.

Demographer Johnson warned that “no city in the state has ever won a challenge of the California Voting Rights Act.”

Even though Council reflects Selma’s demographics, he said the “only safe harbor that the law offers is to go to district elections. You’ve seen from the numbers I’ve shown you, these cases are very expensive. If you don’t stay in that safe harbor, you get into the millions of dollars right away.”

Johnson said hundreds of school districts, community college districts, health care districts and city councils in California have moved to district elections, not necessarily because they’re violating anyone’s election rights or civil rights, but to avoid the cost of fighting the requirement in court, or having someone sue them claiming their voting rights have been violated.

“It’s driven by the cost of litigation that’s been brought in a few jurisdictions that have gone to court. Santa Clara and Santa Monica are in court and they both lost in Superior Court. They’re appealing those rulings. Palmdale also lost [and they] ended up paying the plaintiffs $4.7 million. Santa Clara, it’s on appeals, but they’ve been ordered to pay $3.16 million. Modesto had to pay $3 million. This is in addition to their own defense counsel. So that’s what’s driving this wave of change. It’s the financial exposure [to being sued].”

During the initial discussion at the July 1 meeting, Trujillo said it would be pointless to hire the demographer but then go with four districts and a mayor-at-large.

“That would still leave the City open to being sued by anyone asserting the City is violating the California Voters Rights Act,” he said. “Having a mayor at large, there’d be no sense retaining [Johnson] because that would mean we wouldn’t be, under the law, protected. Isn’t that correct?”

Gallavan said, “Right. If we don’t go to all five districts, there is some concern about that.”

Trujillo responded, “It’s not just a concern, it’s an actual reality. We’re not meeting up to par.”

Sparks Rojas said Trujillo is correct but a demographer is still needed “to ensure the districts they draw up comply with federal and state laws. If in fact the council does choose to form four council districts and one at-large, Councilmember Trujillo is correct that we are not protected under the Voters Rights Act because we wouldn’t have completely districted elections. We’d have a combination and we’d still be open to a letter that would trigger another 90 days to move forward to going to five districts. We’d be responsible for attorney’s fees up to $30,000.”

Johnson said that three cities have been sued over this arrangement and in all three cases “there were no appeals court rulings. The Superior Court judges have all said [they’ll] let it go for now but [they’ll] wait and see what happens.”

Robertson argued then that there have been no legal sanctions as a result of going to four districts and a mayor-at-large.

Sparks Rojas however clarified that the cities in those cases did get sued and had to spend city money to fight the legal challenge.

“They had to pay for their attorney’s fees to go through that lawsuit. I think what Councilmember Trujillo is pointing out is we wouldn’t even to get to that point if we went forward with five districts. There would be no issue whether or not we were complying with the CVRA and we wouldn’t be faced with a legal challenge. Those actually went to court. Those cities had to litigate it, spend attorney’s fees. In the end, they were able to keep their districts the way they’d drawn them with a mayor at large, but they did need to expend money to afford those legal actions.”

Gallavan said that once the resolution is adopted, it starts the 90-day process where districts of the City must be drawn up, resident input must be taken over a series of meetings and a final map approved.

Johnson said once the process is started, attorneys will be watching that progress is made. Thus reversing or halting could also lead to lawsuits.

“Once you start the train rolling, it’s extremely risky to stop [it].”

Johnson added that the California’s Voting Rights Act is based on a federal law, but there are only two tests, instead of four, that a city needs to fail to be considered out of compliance with this law.

“There’s no longer a need for a large geographic, concentrated group of the protected class to not be represented. And there’s no longer a need to show that race is a factor either covertly or overtly in elections. Now, it’s simply a statistical test. There’s no need to show discrimination, or prejudice or anything like that. It’s just pure math. If the math doesn’t work out, then you’re in violation of the law.”

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The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@selmaenterprise.com.

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