Judge approves City Council district elections in Visalia to end lawsuit

The Fresno BeeFebruary 6, 2014 

Correction: An earlier version of the story misspelled the name of the name of a lawyer for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area as Joanna Caves Ingram.

In a major change to city politics, a Tulare County judge on Thursday ordered Visalia to hold district elections of City Council members.

Currently, Visalia council members are elected citywide.

Tulare County Superior Court Judge Melinda Reed approved an agreement that settles a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit by four Latino residents who claimed Visalia's "at-large" voting system makes it all but impossible for Hispanic candidates to be elected to the council.

The first elections under the new system will be in November 2016.

The agreement also changes Visalia council elections from odd years to even.

The residents who filed the lawsuit in December hailed the agreement as a victory for civil rights.

"We want Hispanics represented on the council -- that's sorely missing," said Louis Montion, a plaintiff and former Visalia Unified school board member.

In city history, only one Hispanic has been elected to the City Council.

Of Visalia's 127,000 residents, 46% are Hispanic -- a percentage expected to climb.

But others will benefit too, said plaintiff Robert Aguilar, an educator.

"This will be an opportunity for many people, not only Hispanic, to come forward and run for office," he said. "You'll see new faces in the future."

District elections have been controversial in Visalia. Two years ago, voters rejected a ballot measure to change the city charter for election to the City Council from at-large to district. A similar proposal lost in 1994.

According to the legal agreement, "racially polarized voting" exists in Visalia as defined by the California Voting Rights Act.

Council Member Warren Gubler, a lawyer who has urged support for district elections, said the city saved millions of dollars in legal fees by not fighting the lawsuit.

"I'm looking at this from the point of view of a lawyer," he said. "The bottom line is, you're not going to win a case like this. Only time will tell if district elections are superior to citywide elections."

Mayor Steve Nelsen and Council Member Amy Shuklian, who opposed district elections, voted no in closed session against approving the agreement to end the lawsuit.

But because the agreement passed by a 3-2 vote, "I will move forward," Nelsen said.

The switch brings Visalia in line with several cities in California that have changed their elections after the passage of the California Voting Rights Act 13 years ago.

Other cities that switched because of a lawsuit or threat of legal action include Tulare, Madera, Modesto, Escondido and Compton.

In all, 108 governing boards in California -- mostly school districts -- have changed to district elections, said Joanna Cuevas Ingram, a lawyer for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Visalia settlement did not establish new district lines. The city will hire a consultant to draw districts, and the boundaries will need the council's approval.

Nelsen said that once the lines are drawn, some council members will probably find they live in the same district.

Marguerite Melo, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the current system in Visalia of "winner take all" will remain, meaning that the top vote-getter of three or more candidates in district elections will win, even if the winner's votes are less than a majority.

The switch to even-numbered years -- the years of presidential and gubernatorial elections -- means the terms of current council members will be extended by one year each.

The terms of council members Bob Link and Shuklian will extend until 2016, and the terms of Greg Collins, Nelsen and Gubler won't expire until 2018.

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

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