A statewide push to move California cities away from at-large municipal elections to a district-based system has snared Union City. Starting in November 2020, Union City voters will begin electing councilmembers by districts under the plan unanimously approved by the Union City Council Wednesday night.

In the meantime, the Union City Council and community will begin discussions over the often contentious act of equally carving up the city into four distinct districts. A preliminary map that aims to distribute Union City’s population by demographics could be debated, revised, and approved within the next three months.

Patino Jaime
Union City Councilmember Jaime Patino

Similar to neighboring Fremont two years ago, Union City officials received a demand letter on Mar. 15 from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) alleging the city’s use of at-large elections dilutes the influence of Latino-American voters and violates the California Voting Rights Act.

In the case of Fremont, the threat of legal action came from a Malibu-based attorney who had served several other California cities with demand letters, but also cited the disenfranchisement of Latino voters.

Rather than challenge the demand letter, Fremont chose to enact district-based elections for the November 2018 elections. The driving factor being an opinion from its city attorney that attempting to litigate the matter was a losing prospect and had cost other cities up to $4 million in legal costs.

Union City officials made their decision Wednesday based on the same rubric, but also as an effort to maintain city control of the process. “If the city were to defend and not be successful, then a judge could order the district boundaries be drawn and without much input from the city,” said Union City Attorney Chris Kokotaylo. The switch to district election is estimated to cost Union City about $100,000, Kokotaylo added.

By no definition, though, is the Union City Council lacking in diversity. The current council is made up of an African-American woman, a Sikh man, a Filipino-American woman, and a female Caucasian woman mayor. Last November, Union City voters elected a Latino-American to the council. Jaime Patiño finished second in the at-large election that offered three open council seats.

Some councilmembers, including Patiño, expressed concern over how the new districts might be drawn based on actual population versus the voting population.

“My concern is, yes, Latinos may make up 20 percent of the population, but many of them, for many reasons, are not registered to vote. After this, there still might be a disparity. That’s what I’m worried about,” said Patiño.

Starting in November 2018, just of the four yet to be drawn Union City council districts will participate in the new voting system. Because no councilmembers term can be shortened or extended under state law, only Councilmember Gary Singh’s future district will vote in 2020. Union City is also scheduled to have a mayoral election, which will remain citywide, under the plan.

The possibility of other East Bay cities receiving a similar demand letter is unknown. Hayward and Alameda use at-large elections. But while Hayward has a long tradition of Latino-American representation, including three current members, Alameda does not.

Earlier this month, Alameda Councilmember Tony Daysog raised the possibility of the city being sued for using at-large elections. The comment was made during the city’s current discussion for amending its City Charter. Daysog suggested the city might head off any potential threat of litigation by making the change to district elections on its own.