The Visalia City Council held a public hearing Monday about boundaries of council districts when the city switches next year from at-large to district elections, but stopped short of choosing a final map until the next regular meeting of May 11.
Council Member Bob Link was absent due to illness, and council members said the decision was too important without all being present.
“It’s a historic, momentous occasion,” said Council Member Amy Shuklian.
The public hearing involved which of four maps was best. Each has one district of majority Latino voters, centered on north Visalia.
District elections are expected to improve the odds of a Latino candidate winning election to the council. The city agreed last year to adopt district elections to settle a lawsuit alleging violations of the California Voting Rights Act.
Only one Latino council member has served in the city’s history, and that was several years ago. Visalia’s Latino population is 46%.
Elections will be held in even years when voter turnout is higher, so terms of council members were extended one year to 2016 and 2018.
The final four maps each have one district in which Latino citizens of voting age are 57% to 60% of the district’s voting -age population. The remaining four districts have voting-age Latino citizens ranging from 40% to 26% of the district population.
By law, race can’t be the “predominant factor” in creating voting districts.
Shuklian stated her public position that she opposes district elections as bad for the city.
“It’s heartbreaking to me,” she said. “We are really chopping it up. This is ‘my area, my area, my area.’ ”
Council Member Greg Collins said he favored two maps drawn by members of the public because the districts are more compact than in the maps proposed by a consultant.
The city hired National Demographics Corporation to draw maps of proposed districts. The final four chosen last month from a field of 14 include two submitted by the public and two by the consultant.
Council Member Warren Gubler said he favored one of the consultant’s maps because the Latino district is high at 60% and none of the districts puts two council members into one district.
Mayor Steve Nelsen said he favored another of the consultant’s maps because it would be easier to adjust the lines after the next census when the city’s population will be larger.
Visalia’s exercise is part of a trend toward district elections of council members.
Three years ago in response to a lawsuit Tulare voters approved district elections; the same thing happened seven years ago in Modesto.
Visalia voters rejected a ballot measure three years ago to switch to district elections.