Highland City Council Divided On Putting Ward System Choice On Ballot

(July 9)  Concerned that an enterprising civil rights lawyer might sue the city over violations of the Voting Rights Act, Highland city officials are looking at the merits of placing a ballot initiative before the city’s voters to see if they would support creating ward districts. Under such a system, members of each ward would be represented by a council member voted into office only by members of that district.
Currently city council members are elected at large by all of the voters in Highland.
A handful of civil rights attorneys have propounded the argument that at large elections discriminate against minorities in that they make it more difficult for a member of an ethnic minority to win an election if he or she must face the full spectrum of voters in a given jurisdiction rather than being able to run from a geographical area in which minority voters may reside in a higher concentration.
There are countervailing theories and arguments on that point. While the city council individually and collectively have made statements saying they are satisfied with the current at large election process, council members Jody Scott and John Timmer expressed concerns that not considering the creation of a ward system might leave the city vulnerable to a civil rights lawsuit citing the Voting Rights Act.
The Highland City Council currently has no ethnic minority members.
Highland City Attorney Craig Steele complied with an earlier directive by the city council to draft documents that would, if enacted by the council, place a measure on the ballot in November to ask voters whether they would rather elect city council members by district. He also provided two proposed maps delineating possible city wards.
At the council’s last meeting in June, Scott and Timmer endorsed putting the measure on the ballot. Mayor Sam Racadio and councilman Larry McCallon said going to the expense of an election over the issue was ill-advised, since voters might reject the ward concept, in which case those intent on suing the city could proceed anyway, perhaps with further causes of action, since it could be demonstrated the city residents themselves had acted in precluding the creation of the ward system.
Council member Penny Lilburn was absent and the vote deadlocked 2-2. Thus, no action was taken. The city will need to lodge its request for the ballot measure with the county registrar of voters by August for it to be placed on the ballot this year.

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