The Merced City Council was not able to make a decision on a bond related to public improvements on the north side of town during this week’s meeting because too many councilmen had to recuse themselves from the vote.
The council perhaps unwittingly provided an example of the benefits of a move to districts for local elections, a process the city is undergoing.
“When three out of seven are within a stone’s throw of each other, even without them being intentional about it, it ends up creating a very narrow view of what the city should do for its citizens,” said Andres Reyes, one of the plaintiffs named by Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the group that pushed Merced to make the move to districts.
During Monday’s meeting, the council was set to approve reimbursing $276,274 to homeowners in the Fahrens Park Assessment District during the consent calendar, which are items typically considered routine and that often see little opposition.
“WHEN THREE OUT OF SEVEN ARE WITHIN A STONE’S THROW OF EACH OTHER, EVEN WITHOUT THEM BEING INTENTIONAL ABOUT IT, IT ENDS UP CREATING A VERY NARROW VIEW OF WHAT THE CITY SHOULD DO FOR ITS CITIZENS.”
Andres Reyes, one of the plaintiffs named by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the group that pushed Merced to make the move to districts
But, three members of the council – Councilmen Tony Dossetti, Josh Pedrozo and Noah Lor – recused themselves from the vote, saying they wanted to avoid even the perception of conflicts of interest.
The district is generally bounded by Highway 59, Yosemite Avenue, Buena Vista Drive and Fahrens Creek. Members of the council generally recuse themselves from decisions affecting a neighborhood they live in or live within 500 feet of, according to city spokesman Mike Conway.
That left four members of the council on the dais, But, votes involving budget adjustments need five votes for approval, according to the city’s staff. The council ultimately delayed the decision until it could consult the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
Under the new local districts policy, that problem would not have reared its head.
The six-district proposal would not allow more than one member of the council to live in the same district, much less the same neighborhood.
Reyes, who is a Merced resident, said the problem highlights the lack of representation for south Merced.
“I think districting shouldn’t be seen as the last step in kind of making our city inclusive for everyone, but it is a critical step because it’s going to help balance the scales out,” he said.
“THE ENTIRE MERCED CITY COUNCIL LIVES NORTH OF BEAR CREEK.”
The entire council lives north of Bear Creek.
Jessica L. Trounstine, a political scientist at UC Merced, said the move to districts should benefit areas of town where elected officials don’t typically live because districts enforce geographic diversity. “Merced has an especially narrow representation historically,” she said.
Living in a neighborhood and interacting with the people there creates the tendency to make a representative partial to that neighborhood, she said.
“Even if one has a desire to be representative for the whole city, I think it would be psychologically pretty difficult to deny the tendency to prioritize where you live,” she said.
Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thaddeusmiller