City gets lawsuit ultimatum over ‘at large’ voting

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

Unless they adopt a by-district election system at their next meeting, a lawsuit compelling the Santa Clarita City Council to move away from “at large” voting will be filed under the California Voting Rights Act as early as next week, a Walnut Creek attorney said on Tuesday. 

The ultimatum, according to attorney Scott Rafferty’s letter addressed to Mayor Bill Miranda and delivered late Tuesday afternoon, follows nearly 19 months of the City Council delaying a decision on how to move forward with a new district election system in which voters within specific jurisdictional lines select a candidate from their specific region.  

Rafferty’s letter said that, while his previous communications with the city did not specifically threaten litigation, this one does. 

“This letter is, however, different and does anticipate litigation,” the letter said. “You must adopt an ordinance requiring district elections and either accept the proposed map or schedule a public hearing at which your constituents can suggest improvements. Otherwise, my clients, acting on behalf of the voters of Santa Clarita, will promptly file an action to enjoin further at-large elections.” 

The third page of the letter is a map, illustrating five proposed districts for the council seats, along with their voter population breakdowns by race. 

Currently, the five council seats are filled by all voters casting their ballots for candidates running to fill that election cycle’s empty seats, with the candidates who receive the most votes citywide winning seats on the City Council. 

While council members have deliberated for over a year on the issue, they publicly reported as recently as July that they remained undecided on how they would divide up the district areas.  

However, Rafferty, the attorney representing as-yet unnamed clients who may sue the city, said the council would have until its Oct. 26 meeting to put district voting on their agenda for consideration, or see litigation filed against them. Rafferty and his clients say by-district elections lead to better policy and engagement for underrepresented communities.   

Miranda could not be reached for comment as of the publication of this article. City spokeswoman Carrie Lujan said the city would have no comment for this story, citing that city officials cannot publicly discuss pending litigation. 

The ongoing saga stems from a letter Rafferty sent in February 2020, asking the city to comply with the California Voting Rights Act and move away from an election system that dilutes the votes of Black and Latino residents.  

“The problem is that in an ‘at large’ system, you’re giving five people the same job, right, and one of two things happens: Either they tend to get along really well, kind of too well, and nothing ever really gets discussed or resolved because … there’s no neighborhood that they’re specifically accountable to,” Rafferty said in an interview Tuesday. “Or sometimes they fight and are dysfunctional or dominated by money, but that’s not quite so much the case in Santa Clarita … (where) you see people hang around for a long time.”   

“The other factor, which is really important, is there’s nobody knocking on your door saying ‘vote for me for City Council,’” said Rafferty. “The consequence is that people are less likely to vote in some of these (marginalized) neighborhoods.” 

As an example of representative government at work in a by-district system, he used the election of Sebastian Cazares, a 20-year-old Latino College of the Canyons alumnus, to represent Saugus on the Santa Clarita Community College District governing board. 

Prior to the pandemic, the City Council had until June 18, 2020, to complete public hearings based upon the safe harbor deadlines under the Elections Code. However, state orders issued during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic suspended a series of city-hosted public hearings required under state election law to receive public input on the drawing of council districts.  

Those state orders have since expired and Rafferty said Tuesday that time was up for the council, which had committed to transitioning to by-district elections on March 19, 2020, but had been stalled by the pandemic and the release of the 2020 census data to decide on the districts.  

“It would be a travesty for the incumbents, two of whom were elected in the 20th century, to draw lines that perpetuate the status quo for another decade,” Rafferty’s letter reads. “Through your delay, you have lost the right to control the drawing (of) the districts.” 

The letter says the council must adopt an ordinance requiring district elections and either accept the proposed map, drawn by Rafferty’s group, or schedule a public hearing to consider improvements to the map. If the city does not do so, the group will seek an injunction and head to court, Rafferty said.    

It appears as if Mayor Pro Tem Laurene Weste lives in District 1 on the map put forth by Rafferty’s group. That district, according to Rafferty’s letter, would be 45.1% Latino voters, 39.5% white, 9.1% Asian and 5.8% Black. The other four districts, according to the letter, would each have more than 50% white voters, with lower percentages of Latino, Asian and Black voters, in that order. 

Miranda, Councilwoman Marsha McLean and Councilman Cameron Smyth live in District 5 on the Rafferty group’s map. Councilman Jason Gibbs lives in District 3, and there are no current council members in either district 2 or 4 of Rafferty’s map. 

The proposed map included with Rafferty’s letter threatening the City of Santa Clarita with litigation should they not move to a by-district election process. Courtesy of Scott Rafferty.

Smyth and Gibbs were elected to four-year terms in 2020. The terms of Weste, McLean and Miranda expire in 2022. 

To read the full letter, visit here.

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