Should Gilroy go to district elections?
That was the question posed by Councilman Peter Leroe-Munoz at the city council’s first meeting of the new year, when he asked city staff to look into changing how Gilroy chooses its elected officials.
At some point during last year’s elections, then-Mayor Perry Woodward pointed out to Leroe-Munoz that not a single of the seven council members lived east of Wren Avenue.
“It is kind of scary when you look at that because there’s a lack of geographic representation on the council. That’s a huge part of the city that doesn’t have a council member who lives in that region,” said Leroe-Munoz at an interview at the Dispatch office days after the Jan. 9 meeting when he introduced the topic during council comments. That’s a time in the meeting when members usually give updates on ribbon cuttings and regional committees, not propose controversial plans to reconfigure the city’s balance of power.
Currently Gilroy uses at-large elections to select its councilmembers and mayor. This means any resident can vote for any candidate no matter where the voter lives. Likewise, candidates do not have to be from each part of the city, resulting in what Gilroy has now, a dais full of council representatives who live clustered in one area of town.
City planning commissioner and local activist Rebeca Armendariz is not surprised. Consulting a city map and cross-referencing it with the addresses of those who have served on the city council since the early 20th Century, Armendariz said she could count on one hand the number of city representatives who have lived east of Church Street.
“The way our city invests in our community is lopsided,” she said. “Where our councilmembers live makes a difference.”
Leroe-Munoz said a council representative does not necessarily have to live in a district to serve it well, but believes having that geographic diversity brings a perspective that is very localized to the council.
“What’s nice about having district elections is you have a representative who lives in that district, who knows the specific issues in that neighborhood, block or street. They can help raise the issue and help us craft solutions to any problems or challenges,” he said.
Using as an example the group of residents on Upper Welburn who petitioned City Hall over four years to get traffic calming measures installed on their part of the block, Leroe-Munoz said like the 37 householders who spurred the actions, more people in the city are getting engaged.
“This is democracy at work, but a lot of these issues are hyper-localized,” he said. “That’s one part of one street [referring to Upper Welburn]. If you were two or three blocks down the road, you may not have even been aware of the issue.”
By going from at-large to district elections, Latinos in the city (which make up 58.7 percent of the population), especially those who live in Gilroy’s eastside, stand to benefit. While it was never brought up as a talking point during his campaign, Roland Velasco is the city’s first Latino mayor, a fact that has stunned many in the city.
”We have looked at Gilroy. I can’t say much more than that. We have discussed this internally,“ says San Francisco-based civil rights attorney Robert Rubin, who serves as director of the California Voting Rights Institute and has filed class action suits against California cities and school boards who conduct at-large elections.
If the system dilutes Latino votes, “they will be challenged,” he said. “If they still conduct the elections in an at-large system and the community suffers from racially polarized voting, it is vulnerable under the California Voting Rights Act and is subject to liability under the CVRA.”
Rubin acknowledged that with a Latino mayor and two Latino council members Gilroy may be less vulnerable to a CVRA claim but that the matter deserves further study.
According to the National League of Cities, while nearly two-thirds or 64 percent of all municipalities in the country use at-large elections in some way, at-large elections “can weaken the representation of particular groups, especially if the group does not have a citywide base of operations or is an ethnic or racial group concentrated in a specific ward.”
“When you look at the representation on the east side of town, it’s a largely Latino community, and there isn’t anyone on the council who lives in that part of town,” said Leroe-Munoz.
The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 expanded voter protections in the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and gave minority groups an avenue through which to argue for greater electoral representation on governing boards, be it city councils or school boards.
Back in the 1980s, at a cost of $2 million and after four years of court battles, including time in front of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the nearby city of Watsonville moved from at-large to district elections when the courts determined the city’s at-large elections were illegal under the Voting Rights Act and did not give the Latino population (then just over half of the city) a fair shot at participating in the political process.
For Leroe-Munoz, who in addition to his six years on the city council is a practicing attorney, believes it is always best to avoid litigation.
“We have to make sure the city is consistent with the Voting Rights Act,” he said. “It’s better to take the initiative instead of being forced to do that in court.”
Armendariz, who said she and a cohort of community members have been bandying around the idea of district elections in Gilroy for a number of years, appreciates Leroe-Munoz’s initiative.
“Measure H demonstrated that the community demands its voice be heard and represented. The long overdue next step is districting,” she said. “I give credit to Peter for taking the initiative on this. I hope they will recognize it’s the best way for every person in our community to get representation.”
Leroe-Munoz’s direction to the city administrator to look into the matter, including what procedures need to be followed and the legalities of it all, will be followed by an agenda item in a future council session where the issue can be discussed publicly.
The Gavilan College Board of Trustees, which covers south Santa Clara County and San Benito County went district for the first time during the 2016 November election, and can be a model of how to make the transition successful with its extensive community input and buy-in, added Leroe-Munoz.
“This is really an idea that can give a different set of voices an opportunity to participate,” he said.
Should Gilroy go to district elections?