In an unprecedented moment, the Santa Clarita City Council declared Thursday its intention to transition from at-large to district-based elections, while also continuing its fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Council members voted unanimously during a public, special meeting at City Hall to adopt a resolution that stated their intention to transition by the November 2020 general election, as well as to give city staff the green light to notify the public about the future public hearings on the matter.
Their vote comes after the city received a letter on Feb. 7 from Scott Rafferty, a Northern California attorney, arguing, on behalf of Neighborhood Elections Now, a group he said includes local voters of different races and ethnicities, that Santa Clarita’s current at-large elections dilute the votes of Latino residents.
With Thursday’s vote, the city must now conduct two public hearings to collect input from the community regarding the composition of the districts before it considers an ordinance that would officially switch the council to election by districts.
Council members said the decision to meet Thursday in public was not an easy one due to the challenges presented by COVID-19. Health officials have urged the public to practice social distancing and remain at home as much as possible.
If they didn’t hold the meeting, however, the city could face potential litigation due to a strict deadline that does not accommodate pandemics, according to a city staff report.
Since Rafferty’s letter, the city has 45 days, or until March 23, within which Santa Clarita cannot be sued and must declare its intent to transition. With an adopted resolution, the city now has additional 90-day protection from litigation and must conduct the public hearings and adopt the ordinance during that period.
“We could have waited until the 45th day, March 23, but given the vagaries of how these new health regulations are coming down almost daily, I’m not even certain whether meeting on the 23rd might look like,” said City Attorney Joseph Montes.
At the meeting, some members of the public who appeared to socially distance themselves spoke at the podium, most of whom expressed support for the adoption of the resolution to transition to district-based elections.
Despite a deadline to follow to avoid litigation, the City Council heard concerns about the timing of the meeting amid the coronavirus situation.
On Wednesday, some residents also expressed the same, including City Council candidate Aakash Ahuja, who said via email: “Although I favor the redistricting of the city for election process, this meeting should be conducted in such a manner that it does not jeopardize public”s health, including the current City Council members.”
The process lacked transparency, said resident Diane Trautman, who has also run for City Council in the past.
“Though I favor a move to districting, I believe we need a transparent process that truly invites public participation and one that involves an independent redistricting commission,” she said. “The city’s move to create an emergency meeting, without adequate public notice, does not inspire faith that the process will be fair and open.”
Considering the fluid situation with COVID-19, the city expects to facilitate public hearings on the matter via a live stream and record the meetings.
“The city will facilitate social distancing in the hearing room,” the agenda report read. “Anyone who does not wish to attend the hearings in public should consider submitting comments in writing.”
A demographer for hire will also be proposed by the city to provide a website and web tool so the community can submit their suggested district map ideas for consideration, the agenda added.