As recently reported by The Signal, the Santa Clarita City Council reluctantly accepted changing from at-large representation to district representation. This story has been covered for several months by Signal reporter Caleb Lunetta, whose reporting is excellent. However, to date we have not been told how much the city spent pursuing this matter.
I previously wrote two columns about the California Voting Rights Act and its unique ability to coerce municipal governments and agencies into abandoning at large-voting in favor of by-district voting. 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 when 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’ voices because of an at-large voting process. Consequently, the chances of retaining at-large representation are typically infinitesimal.
The CVRA is so powerful because 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, that 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 rare cases, the plaintiffs may also be awarded monetary damages if they can demonstrate that they personally suffered financial harm.
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 identify plaintiffs capable of filing lawsuits claiming damages.
A Google search for “CVRA lawsuit settlements” delivers scores of results. I lost count of the settlement amounts, but they clearly exceed $100 million in tax dollars. These only include the amounts to settle litigation; they do not include costs incurred fighting litigation, which are undoubtedly also enormous.
Substantially all of our local school and water districts have converted from at-large to by-district elections. I spoke with one former school board member who told me the district changed because the cost of resistance was just too great and the differences in board governance after the by-district structure was adopted are relatively insignificant. In fact, if you look at maps of the proposed City Council districts, in many respects, they are quite similar to the districts adopted by the William S. Hart Union High School District and the Santa Clarita Community College District, which potentially diminishes the argument that City Council at-large districts are superior.
This raises some troubling questions that should concern taxpayers. Why did the city fight and challenge a lawsuit that they had little chance of winning? The city paid $370,000 to Scott Rafferty, which could have been avoided if it honored its previous March 2020 commitment to conduct by-district elections starting in November 2020.
How much did the city spend defending itself? The city engaged Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, one of the state’s most powerful law firms, to represent it. Gibson is a top-notch firm. I worked with them many times during my career, but my clients almost always complained that Gibson doesn’t work for peanuts.
Perhaps the City Council fought the inevitable in order to get elected one last time. Perhaps the council wanted to make a political statement and rally its political base. Other observers have speculated on the cause. Whatever the reason, cost to the taxpayers does not appear to have been a significant consideration until the April meeting when the City Council finally voted to throw in the towel.
We live in an era where politicians are willing to spend taxpayers’ money in order to make a political point. The most recent example is in Florida where the state legislature passed legislation to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District that oversees Walt Disney World. While this action certainly puts an exclamation point on a political issue, Forbes magazine estimates that it will cost the taxpayers of Orange and Osceola counties $163 million annually.
Fortunately, the amounts spent by our City Council are nowhere near that amount, but my guess is that the amount spent by the city in this endeavor is not insignificant. Santa Clarita taxpayers deserve transparency in terms of disclosing the amounts spent in a clearly feckless endeavor of resisting by-district representation. Hopefully, The Signal and its ace reporter, Caleb Lunetta, are up to the task of enlightening taxpayers and reporting on the total amounts spent in this endeavor.
Jim de Bree