Santa Clarita council members discuss district-based elections in light of Santa Monica lawsuit

Santa Clarita City Hall, as pictured on February, 26, 2020, is located on the 23900 block of Valencia Blvd. Dan Watson/The Signal

While the Santa Clarita City Council declared its intention to transition from at-large to district-based elections in March, the switch is no longer a foregone conclusion following a recent Santa Monica lawsuit ruling and everchanging COVID-19 developments, council members acknowledged Wednesday. 

Just four months ago, the council’s vote greenlighted city staff to notify the public about future public hearings on their intent to transition by the November 2020 general election. 

The move to switch comes after Santa Clarita received a letter from Bay Area attorney Scott Rafferty on behalf of a group he said is asking the city to comply with the California Voting Rights Act, alleging the local government’s current elections dilute the votes of Latino residents. 

Since March, council members reviewed a timeline that would have condensed a lengthy process consisting of multiple public hearings and drafting maps by June 30 in order to transition in time for November, while considering the countywide prohibition of public gatherings due to the pandemic, which ultimately led to their decision on May 26 to pause the switch to district-based elections to avoid rushing the process while under a health crisis. 

“I just do not think we can do this and do it right, and that’s important, doing it right. That’s not going to happen in this concise schedule. We need time to get this done right,” Mayor Pro Tem Bill Miranda said at the May meeting. 

On Tuesday, he said that while the intent was to transition, a Santa Monica lawsuit ruling “may have an altering effect on my decision,” but said he would look further into the case and speak with constituents about what they wanted, although he believes “the community wants at-large voting.” 

Santa Monica won its appeal on July 9 to retain an at-large election system after the city faced a lawsuit from the Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya group alleging discrimination against Latino residents. 

The court held that the city did not violate the California Voting Rights Act or the California Constitution because the Pico Neighborhood group’s attorneys “failed to prove the city’s at-large system diluted the votes of Latinos” and “did not prove the city adopted or maintained its system for the purpose of discriminating against minorities,” according to a Santa Monica news release, which added that the plaintiffs sought to recover $22 million in attorneys’ fees. 

Rafferty said Tuesday he did not represent the plaintiffs in the Santa Monica group but said errors in that ruling will hurt Latinos throughout California, and that “the Santa Monica case involves allegations of intentional discrimination. My clients have never made that accusation in Santa Clarita.” 

In light of Santa Monica’s win and Santa Clarita’s decision to hold on moving forward with districts in 2020, Mayor Cameron Smyth said Tuesday the city’s currently taking a “wait-and-see approach.”

“As a result with our next election not being until November 2022, it’ll allow a lot of questions to be resolved that will help inform on either: Will the city move forward with districts and if we do, what do those districts look like?” he said.

Theoretically, he said, the city would have new Census data by June 2022, which is when district maps would need to be complete for the November 2022 election, should the city part from at-large elections. 

Jonathan Ahmadi, who formed an independent committee to develop proposed district maps, said the ruling doesn’t apply to Santa Clarita because “we have very different demographics.” 

The Santa Clarita Independent Districting Committee, which is currently working on developing educational videos about redistricting, has developed a proposed map using the 2010 Census data it planned to present to the City Council before the decision to pause the process. The group plans to update it upon the release of new data.  

“For 2020, we missed this year for redistricting for sure but I am committed to the work to help engage people on the topic of redistricting,” he said. 

Signal Managing Editor Perry Smith contributed to this report. 

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