Visalia Ordered to Conduct District Elections in 2016

The City of Visalia has been ordered to accept district elections and to hold city council elections in even years beginning in 2016. The judgment was entered by Judge Melinda Reed on February 6, after the city did not contest the case presented to the court. The judgment ends a lawsuit that was filed against the city on December 19 by Visalia residents Carlos Medina, Dr. Robert Aguilar, Miguel Fierro and Louis Montion.

The lawsuit claimed that the city’s at-large elections violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA) because there was a pattern of racially polarized voting that impaired Hispanics from electing their preferred candidates. The lawsuit also cited that there had only been one Latino individual that had ever been elected to the Visalia City Council, and that despite having more than 46% of the population, there was currently no Latino member on the council.

At-large and odd year elections have been required in the city’s charter. The city council had twice put a question on the ballot, in 1994 and in 2012, asking if voters wanted to go to district elections, but it was rejected both times by a significant margin.

“This has been a difficult decision for the city council,” said Mayor Steve Nelsen. “We respect the will of the Visalia voters to continue with at-large elections that have been part of the city’s charter for more than 90 years. But legal counsel advised us that based on current California law, and in the interest of minimizing the potentially significant litigation cost to the city, our prudent option was to not contest this case and to accept a court-ordered judgment that moves the city to district-based elections in even years.”

The judgment also extends the terms of the current city council members by one year, to the next even year, to facilitate the transition to even year elections. Council Members Amy Shuklian and Bob Link’s terms are extended to 2016, and Mayor Nelsen, Vice Mayor Warren Gubler and Council Member Greg Collins terms are extended to 2018.

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