Latino voters sue Visalia to end 'at-large' voting

The Fresno BeeDecember 19, 2013 

— A group of Latino men who sued the city Thursday allege that Visalia's "at large" system of electing council members violates the California Voting Rights Act by making it nearly impossible for Latino candidates to win.

The Superior Court lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the city to switch to district elections and hold them in even-numbered years, which would correspond with state and federal election cycles.

Council members are currently elected in a citywide vote in odd-numbered years, with the top vote-getters winning.

The lawsuit comes less than two months after a City Council election in which the only Latino candidate came in a distant fourth behind three white incumbents in the city of about 127,000 that is 46% Hispanic.

It will force the city into adopting district elections that will give Latinos power at the ballot box, said attorney Marguerite Melo, representing the plaintiffs.

"The at-large system dilutes the Latino vote," she said.

Visalia is a holdout among larger Valley cities that have gradually switched to electing council members by district. Only one Latino candidate, Jesus Gamboa, who served in the 1990s and 2000s, has been elected to Visalia's council.

Mayor Steve Nelsen, an opponent of district elections, said Thursday that the council is divided on the topic but may accept a court order rather than engage in an expensive legal battle.

"At what point do you say financially this is a drag on other things we want to do?" he asked.

Council Member Warren Gubler, a proponent of district elections, said court rulings under the California Voting Rights Act invariably require election by district.

"It's just not worth (spending) public funds to litigate," he said.

Filing the lawsuit are Carlos Medina, a small-business owner; Robert Aguilar, a school superintendent in a Kern County district; Miguel "Mike" Fierro, a disabled U.S. Army veteran; and Louis Montion, a former Visalia Unified School District trustee.

The city's charter mandates citywide elections and can only be changed by a vote of the people or court order.

The lawsuit said the plaintiffs waited patiently for the city to change the charter but were dealt a setback last year when voters rejected a ballot measure to amend the charter -- placed there by the City Council at the recommendation of a task force.

A court hearing for the lawsuit is set for April 18.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.

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