By The Signal Editorial Board
It’s a classic case of a solution looking for a problem.
Bay Area attorney Scott Rafferty has threatened the city of Santa Clarita with a lawsuit if the city doesn’t switch from its current “at large” system of electing City Council members to a “by-district” system in which each council seat would represent a designated portion of the city.
The city’s at-large system, Rafferty alleges, makes it more difficult for historically under-represented racial groups — in this case, Latinos in particular — to get elected. This, he contends, puts the city in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
Whether that is actually the case is a matter that would have to be decided in court, and the city is monitoring a pending case before the California Supreme Court involving a similar challenge to the city of Santa Monica. The state’s High Court has had the case for about a year, and has not yet ruled, but whatever its outcome, it will likely set a precedent that would apply to Santa Clarita.
There are a lot of layers to the questions this raises. Among them: Would Rafferty succeed in forcing the city to adopt the map his team has created? Rafferty’s proposed five-district map, shown here, would have four districts that generally make geographic sense — and one, District No. 1, that is gerrymandered to increase the likelihood of a Latino candidate winning election.
It’s ironic, because if it succeeds, current Mayor Bill Miranda, a Latino, most likely would lose his seat, as he lives in the same district on Rafferty’s map as two other council members: Marsha McLean and Cameron Smyth.
Smyth, typically, is the top vote-getter in Santa Clarita elections, and has two more years remaining on his term than either McLean or Miranda.
So, if Miranda ends up out, and a Latino is elected to District No. 1, which is no guarantee, the council’s racial makeup would end up exactly as it is now.
Further, there’s no conclusive evidence that such districts will achieve the outcomes Rafferty and his unnamed local clients seek. For example, the first time the William S. Hart Union High School District switched to by-district voting, in 2015, it resulted in the ouster of the only Latina on the Hart district board, Gloria Mercado-Fortine, a long-serving school board member who had served in both the Hart district and the Castaic Union School District.
Let’s be clear: Diversity among our elected officials is a positive thing. It brings differing perspectives and experiences to the dais. However, it shouldn’t be engineered. It should occur organically as a result of an increasingly diverse community — as Santa Clarita is — in which new leaders emerge through community involvement.
That’s how Miranda got elected. And, before him, former Councilman Dante Acosta, who went on from the council to represent the Santa Clarita Valley in the state Assembly.
Further, none of this is to say districts are inherently a bad idea for elected bodies. For example, districts make sense for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the L.A. City Council, each of which cover massive territories in terms of geography and population.
We don’t believe Santa Clarita has reached that critical mass yet, but even if you were to argue that districts are needed here, we would argue the districts should be created not in the interest of social engineering, but in the interest of ensuring that distinct geographic areas within a city are equally represented.
For example, Newhall is a distinct area, with its own sets of interests that apply to its residents. So is Canyon Country, with a different set of interests. Valencia and Saugus, too, are different portions of the city that have their own unique characteristics.
But Rafferty’s map, driven by race, carves out a portion of Newhall and a portion of Canyon Country in the sole pursuit of creating a district that is, if not majority Latino, at least has a Latino plurality. In reality, those portions of Newhall and Canyon Country are in many ways quite different from each other.
Our community is changing. In the past couple of election cycles, the fields of candidates have looked notably more diverse than the fields of candidates in the city’s early years, and have included rising new leaders in the community, of various ethnicities and backgrounds. That’s a good thing, and will inevitably result in increased diversity among those elected to the council. It’s a long-established fact that most who get elected to the council don’t necessarily win a seat on their first try.
However, engineering a desired outcome through litigation, in the pursuit of perpetuating identity politics, is not the answer.