Finalizing the boundaries of council districts will be the topic Monday of a Visalia City Council public hearing as the city switches from at-large to district elections of council members.
District elections are expected to improve the odds of a Latino candidate winning election.
Only one Latino council member has served in the city’s history, and that was several years ago. Visalia’s Latino population is 46%.
The switch settles a lawsuit by a group of four Latino men alleging violations of the California Voting Rights Act. They cited the near impossibility of Latino candidates winning council seats under citywide voting.
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A majority of council members voted last year to settle the lawsuit by switching to district elections beginning next year. The settlement extended the terms of council members to 2016 or 2018, and from now on elections will held in even years, when voter turnout is higher.
Visalia is not the first city to struggle with the demand for district elections.
Three years ago in response to a lawsuit, Tulare voters approved district elections; the same thing happened seven years ago in Modesto.
But even with the looming threat of a lawsuit, Visalia voters rejected a ballot measure three years ago to switch to district elections.
The topic is still controversial. Council Member Amy Shuklian has consistently opposed district elections.
“I hate to see my city divided up into lines,” Shuklian said. “The city worked well being at-large. All parts of the city were well represented.”
But Carlos Medina, a barber and commercial property owner by the Lincoln Oval and one of the four who sued the city, said the largely Latino north side would do better under district elections.
“We’d like to improve the streets, sidewalks, the park,” he said. “The kids who don’t have a park with playground equipment, those are the things we are looking for.”
Vincent Salinas, who ran for election two years ago but fell short, said district elections are no cause for alarm.
“We have the Board of Supervisors and Assembly with districts,” he said.
The city hired National Demographics Corporation to hold public workshops and draw maps of proposed districts. The city also invited the public to submit its own maps.
Last month, the council narrowed the field of 14 maps to four — two submitted by the public and two by the consultant. Monday, the council will take public input on the final four.
Mayor Steve Nelsen said he expects the council to choose one map Monday and not put it off to another meeting.
“We’ve been discussing it for a long time,” he said. “I’ll be surprised if we don’t get down to one.”
By law, race can’t be the “predominant factor” in creating voting districts, the city said. The four maps each have one district in which Latino citizens of voting age are 57% to 60% of the district’s population. The other four districts range from 40% to 26%.
The council asked that incumbents not be “paired,” or put into the same district. National Demographics Corporation maps have no pairing, but the two public maps pair Gubler and Shuklian in a west Visalia district.
The city is making steady progress in the switch to district elections, said lawyer John Sarsfield of the Visalia law firm Melo and Sarsfield, which represented the four Latino residents.
“We have no complaints whatsoever,” Sarsfield said. “I don’t expect there to be a problem.”