For many years, community activist Jane Lea said she has felt that some Lodi City Council members have ignored the Eastside, not been responsive to concerns in the aging neighborhoods and often avoided that section of town.
"I find that disturbing that as a council member you do not drive around the town that you represent," she said.
At the Lodi City Council swearing-in ceremony on Dec. 5, Lea stood before the council and requested the city consider electing council members by district.
"The police department divides the city up into quadrants. Our Congress, Assembly and Senate representatives are divided up by districts. Why is it so crazy to do that in the city of Lodi?" she said.
Currently, people can live anywhere in Lodi and run for council. Lea said her plan would lead to greater representation for low-income residents, more diversity and might decrease the cost of elections.
She suggests the city be divided by population and socio-economic status, so districts have both rich and poor residents in them.
Lea wants the council to study the issue and put it on a future ballot.
"The council could be open-minded and put it out to vote at the next regularly scheduled election at minimal cost. ... If the citizens say no, they like it the way it is, then no harm, no foul," Lea said.
How money plays into the debate
Others have concerns about whether council members representing a district would push special projects over the city's best interests, and whether Lodi is large enough and has enough voters to support districts.
Councilman Phil Katzakian said he is open to finding out more information about the idea, perhaps during a study session, but he said, "at first blush, I don't see it getting any traction."
Having lived here his whole life, Katzakian said he feels Lodi is an open-minded town and there are opportunities for anyone to get elected who want to run.
"I see districts as a disadvantage. There's no reason in the city of Lodi a good candidate cannot get elected," he said. "If, for some reason, a particular group in a certain neighborhood didn't feel like they were being represented, then they can get behind a candidate, raise some money and get them elected."
But according to Lea, raising money is exactly part of the problem. She described it as "crazy" that candidates have to raise tens of thousands of dollars to be in the running.
"There are hundreds of people who are leaders in nonprofits, their churches or their neighborhood that will never have a chance to represent the rest of us or the community because they cannot come up with $20,000," she said.
Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce agrees with Lea that the expense of running a council campaign can prevent people from throwing their hat in the ring.
"(Lea's) right on the money that it costs too much for the average guy to get elected," Mounce said. "When it costs $30,000 to $50,000, that makes the average guy a little apprehensive to run."
The three-term councilwoman said she is still undecided about the idea. But she does feel the council needs to study the issue and any legal ramifications of the city's current system or a district system, especially because a citizen brought forward a concern that people are not feeling represented.
"If that's what Jane is hearing from the people of Lodi, I think it's up to the council to vet the issue out," she said.
Researching the issue
Councilman Larry Hansen said he also would like to study the idea of districts, and he is not going to make a decision without doing his homework first.
"At first blush, my biggest concern is that council members will start working against each other to advocate for their district. Instead of focusing on the central issues for Lodi, people would say, 'I want a park in my district,'" he said.
After hearing Lea's request, Mayor Alan Nakanishi did some research. He said there are multiple reasons he would oppose the idea of districts. One reason is because Lodi is small enough that council members should know what is happening on both the east and west side, Nakanishi said.
Districts could also limit choices because voters might want to support candidates in other areas that are not their own.
"What happens if you have a candidate like JoAnne Mounce in the Eastside of Lodi, but you live on the west side? Then you cannot vote for her," Nakanishi said.
Candidates could be hesitant to run because there are too many people vying for a seat in a certain district, he said.
"There could be five candidates on the Eastside and they are all qualified to run but they can't because of the districts," he said.
His final concern has to do with Lodi's voting population. Even though there are 26,000 voters in Lodi, Nakanishi said only 13,000 actually cast ballots for council. So if the city were divided into five districts, the mayor said candidates may only be answering to 2,000 voters.
He compared it to when he ran for state assembly and represented 400,000 people, which made him more accountable, he said.
"If all you have is 2,000 voters in each district, you can manipulate the system easily," Nakanishi said. "It's prone to fraud in an election because there are so few people."
Other agencies face district question
The concept of districts has come up in the past in Lodi, including an attempt in the early 2000s to get the idea on the ballot.
Recently, the San Joaquin Delta College Board of Trustees also dealt with the issue, Lodi representative Taj Khan said.
Currently, there are seven districts, but the entire Delta College area votes on each representative. The board discussed a system where people could only vote for their district representative, but voted down the idea this past spring.
Having to campaign for a seat is hard because candidates have to reach out to what he estimates are 500,000 voters, Khan said.
"It is difficult for a person to run if you are a candidate for Delta College because you have to campaign in the Lodi area all the way down to Tracy," he said.
The current popular vote system can also mean that people who are supported in their local district don't always get elected.
Lodi could be a different situation, Khan said, because it is significantly smaller than the Delta College board.
"Each political entity has to figure out what is right for their organization," Khan said. "Lodi might be a special case because it's small and compact. If you live on the Eastside, people know you on the west side."
But Lea said concerns are not being heard. She used the example of Rush Street, which is east of Washington Street near Lockeford Street. The road is in disrepair, Lea said, and council members should be addressing infrastructure there.
"If they are not driving those streets all the time and they are not in that neighborhood, what do they care? Why would I want people on the council who do not care?" Lea said.
Don Parsons, a political consultant who has worked for Lodi City Council candidates, including Phil Katzakian, said districts can cause problems because people tend to only focus on issues in their particular area.
For example, he said Stockton used to have nine districts and people only voted for the representative in their area.
"The council is under considerable political pressure because obviously all the council candidates want to get re-elected, so they had to get what they could for their area — sometimes at the expense of the rest of the city," Parsons said. "I think it's kind of a fractious strategy, and I don't think it's healthy for a community."
One other option is to have districts vote to select two candidates and then have a citywide vote to choose the final candidate.
That way, candidates would have to campaign throughout the entire city, Parsons said. But the drawback to that option is it increases the number of elections and therefore the city's costs, which he said is not attractive to voters.
"I don't think it's well considered. The city council members who are up there have done a good job," Parsons said. "JoAnne is a particular example of a candidate who has community support, so the idea that you can't get elected if you are an Eastside candidate is fallacious."
Lea understands there are people who say cities should only have districts if the population is more than 100,000, but she does not buy that reasoning.
"I'm just trying to make things fairer for everyone in the community. Just because that's the way it's always been done doesn't make it right," she said.
Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at email@example.com.