Should Visalia City Council members be elected by district instead of citywide?
Voters will answer that question on Election Day by voting on Measure P, a proposal to amend the city charter.
But a distinct lack of enthusiasm surrounds the issue in Visalia, raising doubts it will pass. No organized campaigns have emerged, the ballot contains no pro or con statements and little community discussion has taken place.
The council, prompted by a letter from a voting rights advocacy group that said it might sue on behalf of residents who feel disenfranchised, voted unanimously in July to put the district elections measure on the ballot.
The unanimity ended there.
Mayor Amy Shuklian opposes Measure P, while fellow Council Member Warren Gubler is urging a yes vote.
Three other council members -- Steve Nelsen, Bob Link and Greg Collins -- have stayed publicly neutral, although Nelsen and Link have expressed personal doubts.
Link said he is voting no, citing strife in Hanford and Fresno, which have district elections.
Nelsen said, "If it's not broke, why try to fix it?"
The council can't mandate district elections because only voters can change the city charter, city attorney Alex Peltzer said. No proposed district map is included with the measure and would have to be drawn up if voters say yes.
But if the measure goes down, voting rights advocates will sue the city under the California Voting Rights Act, alleging that Visalia has a history of racially polarized voting. They will seek district elections as a remedy, said activist Bob Montion of Tulare, who has followed district election issues around the Valley.
District elections will come to Visalia, either by voter approval as in Tulare or litigation as in Modesto, he said. "It's a tide," Montion said. "You can't ignore it anymore."
Visalia, with 126,800 residents, has about a 46% Hispanic population, according to the 2010 Census. But only one Hispanic council member has been elected in Visalia in a 10-year period studied by a city commission.
Additionally, council members tend to live in central or west Visalia and not other parts of town, the study said.
Shuklian said she opposes district elections as "not in the overall best interests of the city."
"When you go to districts you run the risk of people going territorial," Shuklian said. "I think you have better representation when voting is at large."
Under the current system, voters citywide get to choose council members every two years, she said. But under district elections, voters choose every four years and only for their district, she said.
She rebuts complaints that it's difficult for Hispanic candidates to get elected by noting that former council member Jesus Gamboa served 12 years, half of them as the mayor.
"I don't think it was a fluke," Shuklian said.
But Gamboa said he is the exception to the rule.
"I was the first Hispanic in 150 years and there hasn't been anyone since," Gamboa said. "The stars and moon just happened to align."
Only Gubler has shown the "leadership" to try to get the measure passed, he said.
Gubler said district elections are a practical solution to ongoing complaints that minorities have a harder time getting elected.
Furthermore, district campaigns are less expensive for candidates because there are fewer voters to reach, he said.
District elections also would allow the city to avoid a lawsuit, he said.
"I'm hoping that it will pass," Gubler said.