Voting lawsuit threat raises questions

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

Tuesday’s announcement concerning a threat of litigation over the Santa Clarita City Council’s current “at large” election process has turned a number of observers’ attention to not only next week’s meeting, but also an undecided California Supreme Court Case, according to those familiar with the matter.  

The announcement, stemming from a letter sent to Mayor Bill Miranda and authored by Scott Rafferty, a Walnut Creek attorney representing as-yet unnamed clients, gave the City Council an ultimatum: Adopt an ordinance changing the current council election process to by-district voting by the Oct. 26 council meeting or litigation will be filed.  

Rafferty’s ultimatum further demanded that the council either adopt his suggested map of five districts or schedule a public hearing to consider improvements to the map. 

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.  

A district election system would do away with that “at large” system, and instead create a process in which voters within specific jurisdictional lines select a candidate from their specific region.  

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

While a defense of the status quo has been hard to come by since Tuesday, as city officials are for the most part declining comment, the by-district system proponents have said they believe the regionally based elections would create better policy and engagement for underrepresented communities.  

City Councilman Cameron Smyth told The Signal on Wednesday that would “not be surprised” if, when the agenda for the Oct. 26 meeting is released later this week, there will be an agenda item relating to Rafferty’s letter slated for discussion in closed session. California public meeting law allows elected bodies to discuss “pending litigation” in closed session. 

“The issue of districts started before I came back to the council (in 2016),” said Smyth. “I know that it’s been discussed several times and it’s certainly something that other cities and other jurisdictions have had to deal with.”  

Smyth declined to state how he might potentially vote on any ordinance involving by-district voting, citing pending litigation. However, he did confirm that he would be paying attention to the ongoing case Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica, another case involving the California Voting Rights Act that is before the state Supreme Court.  

In 2016, the Pico Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit against the city of Santa Monica, alleging that its “at-large election system for both the City Council and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board dilutes Latino/a voting power in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and discriminates against Latino/a voters in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution,” according to Santa Monica’s city website.  

Following the Court of Appeal reversal of a decision that had been made by a trial court in July 2020, the plaintiffs requested a review of their case from the California Supreme Court. 

That case remains pending before the California Supreme Court. 

Questions Still Pending 

Smyth and Rafferty both stated that questions will need to be answered by city staff and the possible plaintiffs in the coming days.  

“How do you stagger the districts in terms so that you still have kind of the same system with three seats up and then two seats (in another election cycle)?” asked Smyth. He said there would also need to be solutions for situations where some people remain at large until the time that their present four-year term ends.  

Rafferty said that there were a number of questions that needed answering — whether that be in court or through a mutual agreement between the city and his clients, including how the jurisdictions will be drawn.  

Also, there are questions over how any change will handle incumbent candidates currently living in the same district — Councilwoman Marsha McLean, Mayor Bill Miranda and Smyth could all presumably live in the same district, and McLean and Miranda are up for reelection in 2024.  

“Anyone elected in 2020, which is two people (Smyth and Councilman Jason Gibbs), they will serve until 2024, no matter what,” said Rafferty. “And then they’ll have to decide on the districting.”  

The council will also need to decide how a person establishes residency within a particular district, as well as a number of other questions.  

“We will probably do it by an agreement or an ordinance, but I would need to talk to (the city attorney),” said Rafferty, in response to a question asking if the transition must definitely go to court. “As long as they do an ordinance, that might be enough. I’d rather not go to court.”  

Mayor Pro Tem Laurene Weste, Miranda, McLean and Gibbs all either declined to comment or were unavailable to comment as of the publication of this story.  

Santa Clarita City Attorney Joseph Montes was unavailable to comment as of the publication of this story, and city spokeswoman Carrie Lujan was unable to confirm on Wednesday whether the litigation would definitely be discussed in Tuesday’s meeting.   

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