Diversity an issue as council eyes Acosta successor

Santa Clarita City Hall

When Dante Acosta left the Santa Clarita City Council on Dec. 4 for the state Assembly, it left the body with four members – all of them white.

When ballots were counted for the two expiring council seats in the November election, Bob Kellar and Cameron Smyth emerged as winners — and the makeup of the new council, with Acosta’s seat not yet filled, remained all white.

Now, with Acosta, a Latino, gone from the body and an appointment process under way to find his successor, a chorus is rising for the council’s pick to better reflect the city’s ethnic diversity, as well as a wider range of ideas.

“We need a diverse city council,” one speaker said on Tuesday night, when the body decided on an appointment process, conducted by the sitting council members themselves, to fill the Acosta vacancy.

“We need to reach out. We have a real issue as far as (diverse) representation,’’ the speaker said.

Another speaker that night, Moazzem Chowdhury, a pharmacist and losing council candidate in 2014, spoke of the need for an “open” special election for the vacancy – and in an interview with The Signal on Thursday, added, “40 percent of the city population is immigrant-background.”

“There are no new faces in the council, they are all the same,’’ he said. “The new generation that has come to the city, there is no reflection of those groups. Somehow it disconnected with the population that came the last 10-15 years. There is no reflection of those newcomers to the city.’’

Chowdhury actually thinks the council should expand from its current five members as one way to address the diversity issue – but that matter is not the one at hand.

Said another speaker Tuesday, addressing the council: “Be bold and brave and choose somebody who has a slightly divergent view than the others on the board (the council).”

To fill the Acosta vacancy, the council decided Tuesday to begin accepting applications from any eligible Santa Clarita resident 18 or older, starting Thursday. Applications will be accepted through Jan. 6, and the council will hold a special meeting on Jan. 17 — hearing three-minute “campaign speeches” from each of the aspirants.

It’s basically an open call.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Santa Clarita’s ethnic breakdown is 70.9 percent white alone, 29.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, 8.5 percent Asian alone and 3.2 percent black or African American alone.

The calls to diversify the council come in the aftermath of a 2013 lawsuit, eventually settled in 2016 by the city, that alleged Santa Clarita’s at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act by denying Latino residents a fair voice.

Rather than switch to a district system, as the suit had pushed, the city worked out a deal to move this year’s city council election from April to the November general election — a time when a bigger turnout was expected.

Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu attorney and co-counsel for the plaintiffs in that lawsuit against the city, told The Signal on Thursday, “I think the city is very much open to a suit pursuant to the California Voting Rights Act. Their (at-large) system still violates the CVRA. It’s still at-large and it’s still racially polarized voting. I don’t think the mere change of the election date has or will be effective in eliminating the racially polarized voting.’’

While those statements, in a sense, re-litigate a case already settled, Shenkman made some other points as well.

In Santa Clarita, he said, a statistical device known as ecological regression, breaking down voting by precincts, shows, that “Latinos consistently favor one group of choices, Anglos almost always favor the opposite in Santa Clarita.’’

As an example of that “racially polarized voting,” Shenkman cited 1994’s Proposition 187, which denied health and education services to undocumented residents and their children. “In Santa Clarita, 76.5 percent of whites voted in favor, 89 percent of Latinos voted against,’’ he said.

Regarding Santa Clarita’s current appointment process to fill the Acosta vacancy, Shenkman said, “I would hope that they would consider that they ought to have more diversity … not only ethnic diversity, but also diversity of ideas on their City Council, and that’s irrespective of voting-rights issues.

“Currently, they have four white conservative Republicans on the City Council, and the city of Santa Clarita is not represented by that ethnic makeup.’’

Both Mayor Cameron Smyth and Mayor Pro Tem Laurene Weste, in separate interviews, defended the city’s choice to pursue a council appointment for Acosta’s seat – and they insisted the process is inclusive.

“I don’t think this process inhibits any type of diversity,’’ Smyth said. “There is no financial component, like there is in a (regular) campaign. This is open and makes it (the vacant seat) accessible to anybody in the city that has a desire to serve.’’

Said Weste: “We just lost Dante. I think there’s always a desire to be inclusive. I think there will always be a desire to have diversity, and so we’ve opened it up to everybody.’’

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