By The Signal Editorial Board
From a legal standpoint, the city of Santa Clarita was stuck.
The City Council had no choice, pragmatically, but to cave in to the demands of Scott Rafferty, a Walnut Creek attorney who had filed a lawsuit challenging Santa Clarita’s “at large” system of electing council members.
The California Voting Rights Act lawsuit — filed on behalf of local residents Michael Cruz and Sebastian Cazares, as well as the group Neighborhood Elections Now, which is owned by Rafferty — 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 city could have fought the lawsuit, which likely would have cost millions in legal fees and, considering the way California courts have been ruling on similar cases, it very likely would have been a losing cause.
So the city cut its losses, and thanks to the settlement approved on a 4-1 closed-session vote Tuesday night, Rafferty not only will have his demands met, but will also net a cool $370,000 payday from the city.
Starting with the 2024 election, the city will shift to by-district elections — so, instead of voters having the opportunity to vote on all five council seats, each voter will only have the opportunity to cast a ballot for one council member in a geographic district.
Rafferty’s purpose is to create a district with a Latino/Hispanic majority, theoretically ensuring that it will result in a Latino council member being elected.
Representation is important, and we advocate for a diverse council that reflects the community. But that doesn’t mean districts are the way to do it, and it doesn’t mean districts will provide better governance for Santa Clarita.
Further, the irony is, if the city adopts a map similar to the one initially proposed by Rafferty, it will likely result in the ouster of the council’s only current Latino member: As Rafferty drew the map, Councilman Bill Miranda would be in the same district as Councilman Cameron Smyth and Councilwoman Marsha McLean. Based on the community’s past voting history, it would seem Smyth would likely emerge on top if the three of them were running for the same seat.
So, if a Latino council member gains election in the new district — which, on Rafferty’s map, looks like a jigsaw puzzle piece — and Miranda is bounced, the net gain of Latino representation on the council will be exactly zero.
There’s precedent for that locally, too. After the William S. Hart Union High School District switched to by-district elections in 2015, Latina board member Gloria Mercado-Fortine was out.
But hey. On the up side, we’ll have five fiefdoms.
You see how well that works in the city of Los Angeles and L.A. County, right?
For example, on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, we get to vote for one representative out of five. And whenever the other four supervisors want to ram something undesirable down the Santa Clarita Valley’s throat — their current scheme to put the county’s most violent youth offenders in a Saugus camp designed for non-violent youth comes to mind — Supervisor Kathryn Barger is on the losing end of a 4-1 vote.
We have zero leverage with the other four supervisors. Zilch. Nada. They just don’t care about our concerns, because they don’t answer to us.
It’s not difficult to imagine similar scenarios cropping up in the future Santa Clarita. When the interests and needs of one part of town are pitted against the other four, four out of five council members will not be at all beholden to the single district.
Welcome to a state of reduced leverage, Santa Claritans. Instead of five council members having to answer to you, you will have one.
Further, the rationale behind forcing Santa Clarita — and other governments — to switch to by-district voting under the CVRA is motivated by a rather condescending push for identity politics.
It’s disappointing, in 2022, to see the perpetuation of the degrading notion that people will only vote for a candidate based on race. The vast majority of voters choose candidates who they believe will represent their interests, regardless of race.
As local Latina resident Berta Gonzalez-Harper put it in a letter to the City Council, “How very insulting.”
“I would posit that it is actually ‘racist’ to assume that folks are unable to decide who can best represent their interests without the intrusion of these bogus lawsuits,” Gonzalez-Harper wrote, adding that districts will be a dividing force, not a unifying one. “Where are the massive numbers of residents clamoring for council voting districts? They do not exist because most intelligent folks prefer to have five council representatives to champion their issues, solve their problems, etc., rather than being at the mercy of only ONE person.”
Further, Gonzalez-Harper noted, “As a community WE do not have a problem of representation. Our current (2021) Mayor Bill Miranda is also of Hispanic heritage, as is our Assistant City Manager Frank Oviedo, City Attorney Joe Montes, many city employees, school board members and employees, as are our California Assemblywoman Suzette Martínez Valladares and U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia.”
All of them were either hired or elected on merit and/or voter preference, organically. As they should be.
It’s certainly arguable that our City Council could use some new blood — or perhaps even term limits — but this isn’t the best way to do it.
If nothing else, the next couple of years will provide interesting theater as the details are hashed out. The council will continue to have staggered elections for four-year terms, with two seats being elected in 2024, three being elected in 2026, and so on, which makes sense from a continuity standpoint — it wouldn’t be advisable to have all five seats open in the same election.
So, which districts will be first? Which council incumbents will be the odd ones out if multiple council members live in the same district? How will they each jockey to protect their own political self-interests? What will the final map look like?
Get your popcorn. It’s going to be interesting, even if it’s not what’s in the best interests of the city or its residents.