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SELMA – After a 3-2 vote, the Selma City Council has switched from pursuing five election districts to an election system with four districts and a mayor that would be voted in at large.

It’s a decision that infuriated some citizens present at the special Sept. 27 meeting, pleased others and drew continued concern from some that City could still potentially be sued.

The city’s new attorney, Neal Costanzo, assured the Council they were protected from any further legal action if they chose the mayor-at-large and four districts system.

This is a reverse from what the previous attorney was advising the City just weeks ago.

Costanzo produced California Government Code 34886 and said as long as the Council includes wording in an amended resolution that they were choosing that arrangement “in furtherance of the purposes of the California Voting Right Act,” they would be protected from further legal action.

“It says, ‘not withstanding section 34871 or any other law.’ What that means is that this section applies without regard to any law, including the Voting Rights Act. It expressly allows you to adopt an ordinance that divides the city into four districts and has an at-large elected mayor, as long as you put in your ordinance that you’re doing this in furtherance of the purposes of the California Voting Right Act.”

Costanzo said National Demographics Corporation’s Doug Johnson brought up earlier cases where having a mayor-at-large was an issue and the judges involved in those cases took a ‘wait and see’ approach and really didn’t come to a decision.

“Each of those cases was filed before Jan. 1, 2017. Before that date, there were cities out there being challenged under the Voting Rights Act for having a mayor-at-large election system, even though they had divided into districts for every other council seat,” Costanzo said. “Those cities went to the League of Cities and they went to the Legislature and got [government code 34886] passed. It became effective on Jan. 1, 2017 at which point those cases that were pending that Mr. Johnson mentioned became moot. When a case becomes moot, the court is required to dismiss the case.”

Mayor Pro Tem Louis Franco proposed they stay with the five district system, but that was shot down with a 3-2 vote.

Councilman John Trujillo asked why the proposal had changed from five districts since Council had voted previously 3-2 against having four districts and a mayor-at-large.

Costanzo said the Council had previously been misinformed.

“That misinformation [is] that it leaves you exposed to a Voting Rights Act claim if you retain the mayor-at-large. I also told you that it was misinformation that you could only do that if you put it on the ballot.”

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Costanzo said he felt obligated to call out misinformation from the previous attorney and give council the option to reconsider their decision. He then laid out the steps and timeline needed to move to the four districts, mayor-at-large system.

He suggested Council take the P114 map, have National Demographics redraw the lines to have 25 percent of the City’s population in each district and start public hearings on that proposal at the next Council session.

“Then you’d have a second public hearing before publication of the map on Oct. 31. Then you’d release the maps shortly thereafter. I’m proposing the public hearing on the draft maps as Nov. 4 and Nov. 18, both regular meeting dates. Finally, you’d reach Dec. 2 and you’d have the first reading and public hearing on the ordinance on Nov. 18 so when you get to Dec. 2, you’d simply have a second reading and adoption of the ordinance, assuming you’d have agreed on a map. That would be well within the 90-day time frame.”

Costanzo also proposed a number of different election sequences and the option to either have a mayor serve for two or four year terms.

Councilman Jim Avalos made the motion to amend their current resolution and move toward the four districts, mayor-at-large voting system. After taking public input, the vote was 3-2 in favor with Mayor Scott Robertson, Avalos and Councilwoman Sarah Guerra in favor.

Some audience members were for the idea, but others labeled it as self-serving.

Selma resident Colleen Nelson brought up the additional expense the decision would bring.

City Manager Teresa Gallavan said the City has spent $25,000 so far on the process and demographer Shalice Tilton said it will cost an estimated $2,000 for each meeting they must attend in preparation and follow up costs.

In discussing the last item on the agenda that night, Franco inquired as to why the city’s previous attorney's evaluation and termination was ever brought up. He’d pressed Councilman Avalos for the reasons why Avalos sought to have her removed and thought the hiring of Costanzo seemed too “orchestrated” to be merely a coincidence.

“What if our actions are creating a hostile work environment for our employees? And if we don’t find out what that is, just by being silent and condoning someone doing it, it makes all of us guilty, if that’s the case. But I don’t know what the case is because [Avalos] won’t say.”

Avalos said he put it on the agenda but then the previous attorney left on her own.

“We were probably going to discuss it in closed session, but the individual left and the case became closed,” Avalos said. “I don’t discuss it no more because hey, we don’t need to discuss it no more. That person left on their own accord. You’d have to ask that individual why she left.”

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

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