Following a closed-door 4-1 vote held just before the night’s regular meeting was scheduled to begin, the Santa Clarita City Council announced Tuesday they had approved a settlement in a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed against them, and will move future elections to a by-district system.
In addition to agreeing to move to district-based elections, the city will also pay a total of $370,000 to Scott Rafferty, the Northern California lawyer representing himself and the two other litigants in the lawsuit, in order to cover his legal fees and expenses.
Following the announcement, the five council members each expressed their belief that the current at-large voting system better enfranchised local voters, allowing them to decide on all five City Council seats as opposed to them voting on only one representative for their immediate neighborhoods. However, they all said that, despite this belief, their “hands were tied” when it came to challenging the litigants in court.
Filed in December on behalf of Michael Cruz, Sebastian Cazares and the group Neighborhood Elections Now, which is owned by Rafferty, the lawsuit alleged that the city’s at-large voting system, or allowing voters across Santa Clarita to vote for all available council seats in a given election, results in the dilution of minority groups’ votes.
The litigants argued that voting for a single representative from their neighborhood district would result in more representative candidates for local communities with large Latino and minority populations in future City Council elections — groups whose populations have grown since the city’s system was implemented decades ago and are protected by the CVRA.
Officials stated that the transition to district voting would occur after the November 2022 election — in which Mayor Laurene Weste, Councilwoman Marsha McLean and Councilman Bill Miranda are up for reelection — and is slated to institute district-based elections for the City Council seats starting with the 2024 election.
“I commend City Council for making the right choice and following the guidance laid out in the California Voting Rights Act,” Cazares said Tuesday night. “I was a plaintiff in this effort to advocate for my community, not only because we are one of the last big cities in the nation to use the at-large system — which is proven to dilute the voting rights of people of color — but also because district-based elections allow for a more fair and competitive process that elevates the voices of voters from all backgrounds and ideologies in our community.”
After making the announcement that they would be changing the voting system in future elections, Weste called Tuesday “probably one of the toughest days the city has ever seen” and said that this would result in a change for all residents.
“I certainly don’t think it’s a good thing for the Latino community,” said Miranda during the Tuesday night meeting. “It has the possibility of having the exact opposite impact of the one intended and I certainly hope that doesn’t happen.”
Councilman Jason Gibbs, who is up for reelection in 2024, called it “reprehensible” to assume individuals’ voting preferences based on race and McLean alleged that the suit was not about voting rights but rather all about money.
“It is about money and a certain level of politics, period,” McLean said, adding that she was the only dissenting vote against approving the settlement. “To pay this man (Rafferty) money that he’s going to get for basically tearing the city apart, I just couldn’t do it.”
According to the agreement between the litigants and the city, the five districts’ boundaries will be determined before the 2024 election, and the city will continue to operate its staggered elections,
“(So) only two seats will be up in November 2024,” read a statement issued by the city immediately after the announcement from the council, later adding: “Council members (will continue to) serve staggered four-year terms, so the remaining three district seats will be up for election starting in November 2026.”
A map for the new district lines will be drawn over the coming months, and the council will have until June 30, 2023, to accept a map with five electoral districts.
City officials said over the last handful of months they had been warned that no city in the state of California had won a lawsuit of this kind, and that in the rare instance that the municipalities do decide to move forward with a trial anyway, the process becomes quite expensive in terms of staff resources and legal fees.
“The biggest concern that I had was that we would go through the litigation process and be like the other cities… of Santa Clara and Palmdale where you still lost,” said Councilman Cameron Smyth, who is up for reelection in 2024. “And then wrote for the $5 million check to the plaintiffs, and we’re still in the same position of having to go to districts.”
In reference to his vote to approve the settlement, Smyth added: “I don’t in any way think that this is going to better the governing of our city, but given the headwinds in front of us, I didn’t feel that I had any other option.”