Santa Clarita to consider move to district-based elections

Santa Clarita City Hall, as pictured on February, 26, 2020, is located on the 23900 block of Valencia Blvd. Dan Watson/The Signal
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Santa Clarita released a statement Wednesday about a special meeting planned for Thursday, when officials will discuss a move to district-based elections.

“Santa Clarita City Council will consider a resolution declaring its intention to transition from at-large to district-based elections at a special meeting on Thursday, March 19, at 4 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall,” the statement read.

Santa Clarita Mayor Cameron Smyth emphasized late Wednesday the letter promising litigation if the city did not act was what spurred the special meeting, while the city, county and nation are all adjusting norms and procedures amid the coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak. 

“The only reason we are taking this item up tomorrow is because of the threat of litigation,” Smyth said. “The city is primarily focused on the response to (coronavirus) and ensuring that all of our vital city services are still operating. It’s unfortunate that the threat of a lawsuit from a Bay Area attorney is taking away any of our time from our current efforts — but it’s something we have to do under threat of litigation.”

Some residents reacted online with questions about the timing of the meeting in the midst of the COVID-19 coronavirus situation.

Scott Rafferty, the attorney who represents Neighborhood Elections Now, a group he said that includes “Santa Clarita voters of a variety of races and ethnicities,” said Wednesday, “I think they’re acting in good faith, having extensive discussions with the city attorney. I think everything is going according to plan and the law and I’m confident.” 

Smyth said the discussion was likely to touch on the selection of a demographer to help with the drawing of districts. One possibility for Santa Clarita’s governance is a model similar to that of L.A. County, which has five geographic districts, and the mayor or chair who rotates among the five board members.

One of the issues mentioned in the letter sent by Rafferty, which is initially what restarted the California Voting Rights Act in California, is that three of the council members live in the same ZIP code, which Smyth called “a fact of circumstance.”

“Regardless of serving at-large or in a district, it’s my intent to represent the entire city of Santa Clarita and continue to do what I think is best for the city as a whole,” Smyth said, “whether I represent one district or continue to serve in an at-large capacity.”

City officials cited a March 23 deadline based on a threat of litigation “that could expose the city to litigation and potentially millions of dollars of exposure,” according to a letter the city sent out Wednesday. The letter also noted that the city’s regularly scheduled council meeting in March would also be canceled due to coronavirus precautions.

“As described more fully below, taking action (Thursday) would protect the city from litigation for at least 90 days,” the letter stated:

“The city recognizes that this process is further complicated by the recent novel coronavirus pandemic or COVID-19 and the federal and state executive orders limiting public gatherings and requiring social distancing. However, the language of the California Voting Rights Act does not accommodate pandemics, and Mr. Rafferty has been consistent in his commitment to have Santa Clarita switch to districts in 2020. The proposed schedule of hearings has been pushed back as far as possible to limit public meetings for as long as possible, while still fitting in all of the required hearings to switch to districts within the 90-day time limit.  However, the city will first and foremost act to protect the health and safety of its residents, and the schedule may need to be modified notwithstanding the 90-day time limit, depending upon evolving federal, state and county restrictions and guidelines. 

“If the City Council adopts the attached resolution of intention, the scheduled public hearings will be live-streamed and recorded. Anyone who does not wish to attend the hearings in public should consider submitting comments in writing. Additionally, the demographer proposed to be hired by the city will provide both a website and a web tool so that members of the public can submit their proposed district map ideas to the city for consideration. While this is not an ideal public process, if the city completes the districting process for 2020, state and federal law mandate a ‘redistricting’ occur prior to the 2022 election, based upon federal census data results in 2021. State law mandates additional public participation and hearing for that redistricting process, and hopefully, the current limitations on social interactions and gatherings will no longer be in place.”

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