Civil rights group threatening to sue the city of Merced

MERCED, Calif.

Merced's city council is made up of six men with a variety of different backgrounds, but there are no Latinos. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, says that's been the case for several election cycles, despite the fact nearly 50 percent of the population is Latino.

Sabina Gonzalez with Communities for a New California said, "When it comes to policies that the city implements, these policies are not reflecting the interest of a large part of the city."

Gonzalez is the regional director at Communities for a New California. Her group is working with MALDEF to persuade the city to switch from at large -- to district based elections. She says the main concern is that all of the current council members live in north Merced, so issues in south Merced are not their top priority.

"The California law says cities and counties and jurisdictions need to represent the entire area that they serve," said Gonzalez. "So it's about geography."

Greg Diaz said, "Our position is we respect the voting rights of all of our residents, particularly those who have been disenfranchised in the past."

City attorney Greg Diaz says officials are open to the idea of switching to districts, but it comes with concerns.

Diaz explained, "It can be time consuming and particularly expensive because you have to make sure in drawing a district boundary you're not having an unintended consequence like disenfranchising some other minority group in order to ensure one group gets representation."

But Gonzalez says MALDEF has approached 20 other jurisdictions, and all of them have gone to district elections, by choice or after losing costly court battles.

"I think the city of Merced has a really important choice to make," said Gonzalez. "They can choose to do the right thing immediately and be on the right side of history, or they can choose to go into litigation like the city of Modesto who ended up having to spend $3 million in legal fees to fight a battle that ultimately they were going to lose."

Merced's city council plans to discuss the issue at its April 21st meeting.

MALDEF has requested a response by May 1st -- and has threatened to sue if it does not receive a "satisfactory" one.

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