It’s been about three months since the city of Selma started moving toward district elections, but this week the council voted to start the process all over again.
In a 3-2 vote, the Selma City Council amended the resolution it passed in July to create five city council districts with a revolving mayor. Now, the council wants four districts and an at-large elected mayor.
Councilmember Sarah Guerra voted in favor of the amendment and said most of the constituents she’s spoken with want to vote for their mayor, rather than having the councilmembers decide who it is every year.
Residents have asked her, “‘How come Selma doesn’t get to vote for their mayor?’” she said. “We went through this years ago where we wanted to vote for our mayor and it didn’t get passed.”
Mayor Scott Robertson and Councilmember Jim Avalos also supported the amendment.
The city has another 90 days to choose a district map, and it’s going to cost more money. There’s no set estimate on how much, but Shalice Tilton, the National Demographics Corporation consultant the city hired to create maps, said it costs about $2,000 every time she attends a city council meeting. During the last 90-day process to create maps she attended at least three meetings.
Mayor Pro Tem Louis Franco, who cast a no vote, said electing a mayor-at-large is like “economic gerrymandering” because not everyone can afford to run a costly election campaign.
“We are basically saying unless you have the financial resources to run for mayor you can never be mayor,” he said during the meeting on Monday. “If we go five districts and we do a rotation, running for a district is so much more affordable.”
Five districts is sufficient because Selma isn’t a major city, Franco said.
Franco and Councilmember John Trujillo were in favor of putting the choice on the ballot in 2020 and allowing voters to decide.
Community members have until Oct. 25 to submit maps to the council.
Why make the change now?
The council discussed having an at-large elected mayor when talks of creating districts began earlier this year, but the city attorney at the time, Bianca Sparks Rojas with Casso and Sparks LLP Law Firm, said it would make the city vulnerable to a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act.
However, Neal Costanzo, serving as special counsel until the city finds a permanent attorney, had a different opinion. He said the council was misled by Rojas because the city can’t get sued for having four districts and an at-large mayor.
Rojas resigned on Sept. 13 after Avalos submitted a request to evaluate her on Sept. 5. Shortly after that, Avalos requested to terminate her contract.
Rojas declined to comment.
Trujillo has been adamant about wanting to know why Avalos requested an evaluation that ultimately led to her resignation.
“As an elected official I have my due diligence to know, ‘Did she do something illegal? Did she do something wrong?” Trujillo asked during the Sept.16 meeting. “Can somebody let me know what occurred?”
Franco has also pressed Avalos for answers and said at the Sept. 27 meeting, “She resigned with cause. You don’t just do that on a whim. So, Jim (Avalos), what was the reason?”
Avalos has continued to avoid answering the question and said he won’t talk about it.
“If the individual leaves before the (termination) evaluation discussions take place, case closed,” Avalos said in response to Franco’s comment. “When cases close that’s a personnel matter and we don’t discuss personnel matters to the public.”
Avalos' request to evaluate and then terminate the city manager “looks very orchestrated” especially because he won’t explain his decision, Franco said.
“You guys weren’t happy with the districting [and then] all of a sudden the attorney has to go,” Franco said. “Then, thank goodness Mr. Costanza was available to show up, and guess what? We were all mistaken and can have a mayor at-large [and] we only need four districts.”