Jim de Bree | Format of City Elections May Change

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree
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Now that the recall election is behind us, perhaps more attention will be focused on the City Council election process, a local political issue whose prominence seems to ebb and flow. The city of Santa Clarita currently employs an at-large election system to elect City Council members, but this is being challenged under the California Voting Rights Act.  

In an at-large system, voters of the entire city elect all members of the City Council. 

A “by-district” election system would divide the city into geographic districts. Voters in each district would then choose their representative, who must also reside in that district. 

The CVRA was passed by the California Legislature in 2001 to supplement the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The purpose of the CVRA was ostensibly to prevent minority groups and other protected classes of citizens from being denied a voice in local elections because their votes are diluted in an at-large election compared to a by-district election. The CVRA lowered the threshold for establishing diminishment of minority voters’ voice from an at-large voting process. 

What makes the CVRA so powerful is that jurisdictions, including cities, school districts, water districts and other municipal bodies having elected officials, can be sued if they elect their governing body using an at-large, or a mixed election system that contains an at-large component. 

If the court finds against a jurisdiction, the jurisdiction must change its election system, draw fair district boundaries under state-mandated guidelines, and pay the plaintiff’s attorneys, experts and other expenses. In certain limited situations, the plaintiffs can also be awarded monetary damages if they can demonstrate that they were financially harmed. 

The CVRA was implemented because the California Attorney General lacks the capacity to monitor local jurisdictions to prevent the dilution of minority voters under the federal statutes. The CVRA addresses this by encouraging attorneys to find plaintiffs to bring suit and claim damages. 

The system is somewhat similar to the recently enacted Texas anti-abortion law because substantially all of the awarded financial damages are paid to bounty hunters employed to discourage a prevailing practice. It will be interesting to see whether the CVRA is affected by the inevitable litigation that will challenge the Texas law. 

A Google search of the term “CVRA lawsuit settlements” will deliver scores of results from municipalities and other local districts. I lost count of the settlement amounts paid, but they clearly exceed $100 million in taxpayer-funded dollars. The city of Santa Monica alone has spent $17 million to date defending itself in court, and if it loses, it will potentially pay another $22 million to plaintiffs. That case is pending before the California Supreme Court. 

If you look at recent ballots, you will notice that the local school districts and water districts have converted from at-large to by-district elections. Presumably, they have done so because the cost of defending the at-large process was prohibitive. 

One remaining at-large local election is that of the Santa Clarita City Council. However, the city has not been immune from litigation. As far back as 2013, a lawsuit was filed against the city alleging that its election practices violated that CVRA. Since then the city has been on a long journey with respect to this matter. It is uncertain how much this has cost Santa Clarita taxpayers to date.  

Part of settling the 2013 lawsuit was agreeing to hold City Council elections concurrently with primary and/or general elections in even-numbered years. Previously, there were special elections with low voter turnout. This change has increased the cost of running a campaign — ironically favoring incumbents and likely increasing the influence of special interests. 

One has to wonder why the city has not moved to a by-district election process like so many other cities have done. Critics assert it is because several of the City Council members reside in close proximity to each other and not all could be re-elected if the city changed to a by-district voting process.  

In February 2020, Scott Rafferty, a northern California Attorney representing a group called Neighborhood Elections Now, sent a letter to the city threatening a lawsuit. The city’s response was delayed by COVID-19 and the results of the 2020 Census, which contained data needed to draw district boundaries in the event the city adopted a by-district election process. The census data was recently released. 

If the city does not proceed in adopting a by-district election process, presumably Mr. Rafferty will bring suit in what will undoubtedly be a costly process. It is not clear where things presently stand. It is possible that the city is waiting for the outcome of the California Supreme Court decision in the Santa Monica case. 

On the other hand, the professional fee meter is running and further delays are likely to cost the city and its taxpayers. 

We should know more in the ensuing weeks. 

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.  

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