Mayor Luis Molina said that the Patterson City Council in closed session March 19 directed city staff to organize a study to describe what ethnic groups make up the city and where they vote.
“This type of analysis is recommended anytime there is a state voting rights claim,” said Deputy City Attorney Doug White. “It creates a baseline determination to find if you should be concerned or not.”
The Latino Community Roundtable, a group of elected and appointed officials, sent letters to school districts and city councils throughout Stanislaus County — including the Patterson City Council — on Feb. 6. The letters demanded that council members be elected to represent specific districts within the city, replacing the at-large election process.
The letter to the Patterson City Council claimed that the city violates the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 2001 California Voting Rights Act by having at-large, rather than by-district, elections.
The letter also stated that the group would take legal action to ensure district elections were put in place in Patterson, if the council did not act immediately to do so.
White has said that no government has challenged this type of lawsuit successfully, and the monetary damages have been large.
Modesto lost a challenge to a lawsuit making similar claims in 2007 and paid a $3 million settlement to a San Francisco law firm.
The Patterson Joint Unified School District recently decided to institute district elections for its seven trustees. The change must be approved by the State Board of Education, which is expected in May.
White contends that the demographic information would equip the council to decide whether to change the way council members are elected.
No decision about switching to districts has been made, he said.
The city has not yet selected a firm to conduct the study, he said. A meeting with school district officials is scheduled to look for ways to share study costs with the school district, which is months ahead of the city in the process, White said.
Rod Butler, Patterson city manager, said the city was watching the school district closely and looking for ways to avoid duplicating efforts.
Phil Alfano, superintendent of the Patterson Joint Unified School District, said Tuesday, March 26, that he had not yet been contacted but had some reports he could share.
Alfano said the total bill for the school district’s election switch is expected to be about $15,000, which includes a demographic study of the district and attorney fees.
He said that the school district began work on the issue in the fall, ahead of the demand letters that were sent out.
“The law is pretty clear,” he said. “The only way to avoid being sued for racially polarizing voting is to go to district elections.”
• Contact Nick Rappley at 892-6187, ext. 31, or firstname.lastname@example.org.