I read both Valerie Bradford’s letter and The Signal’s editorial concerning the city’s settlement of the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.
The 2003 CVRA is a perhaps well-intentioned , but poorly written statute. The act consists of eight sections of the Elections Code: 14025 to 14032.
In preparation for my run for a City Council seat, knowing this would be an issue on the table, I studied all the briefs filed in the case of Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica (2017), from the trial court level through the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals decision can be read here:
bit.ly/3MITQ2U. Pico is pending before the California Supreme Court.
As a lawyer with substantial civil litigation experience over 25 years, reading the Pico briefs was fascinating. I found the arguments on both sides interesting. The historical data that goes into these types of cases is incredible. On one hand, at-large voting rests on the principle that we elect a council that will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people and the city as a whole. On the other hand, district voting strives to ensure the needs and voices of discreet populations are well-represented.
With the current lawsuit against the city of Santa Clarita filed by a College of the Canyons trustee, the decision the City Council had to make was to fight the case, or settle the case on the best possible terms the city could negotiate.
In the Pico case, the attorney’s fees are already in the tens of millions of dollars — and the Supreme Court hasn’t even set oral argument. If the city of Santa Monica loses and is ordered to pay the plaintiff’s fees, the city of Santa Monica will be bankrupt.
I personally believe the at-large voting system is the best for the most people, including our city. Can you imagine a scenario where district-elected council members consistently bicker and argue over a certain project being in their “district” and jockeying to place it into someone else’s district? I can imagine that. Can you imagine a scenario where district council members feel pressure from residents of their district to oppose affordable housing, a homeless shelter, or other needed service? I can. We see it right now with the Board of Supervisors, a la Camp Scott. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t raise the greater good.
While I would have liked to see Santa Clarita mount a bold and vigorous defense to the lawsuit to keep at-large voting in place, the risks were SUBSTANTIAL. The risk of losing the case. The risk of paying the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. The risk of incurring tens of millions in attorney’s fees to the city’s attorneys. The fees associated with the numerous experts required for a case like this — on both sides.
This cannot be understated. And the city would be risking OUR money had they decided to proceed.
If there is any entity or person to be angry at over the settlement of this lawsuit, it’s the Legislature for enacting the poorly worded CRVA and the unscrupulous attorneys who prey upon cities like ours. The CRVA contains a one-way attorney’s fees provision, which means even if the city won the lawsuit, it would NOT be able to recoup the millions in attorney’s fees spent defending the case. This is the terrible flaw in how the CRVA is written, as it gives no downside to plaintiffs from filing a lawsuit like this. This flaw in the wording puts a target on all cities that utilize at-large voting for attorneys to exploit. It has the effect of forcing a particular voting method regardless of how the citizens of a city decided how they want to vote. Our city decided to use at-large voting when it was formed in 1987. And, there is no guarantee district voting would accomplish the stated ends. Just WAIT for the gerrymandering to begin.
Attorneys like myself counsel clients every day to make sound strategy decisions in their cases. Not considering the risk of loss or the costs in terms of attorneys and expert fees is not in a client’s best interests. A risk-benefit economic analysis must take place. Businesses or individuals who have ever been hit with frivolous lawsuits or bogus nuisance claims and who have done NOTHING wrong know what I am talking about. Would the innocent defendant be vindicated in court? Yes. Would it cost them a FORTUNE to get that result? Yes. In these instances, innocent defendants like cities in these CRVA lawsuits usually end up settling because of the economics. It is a sad fact of life.
I commend the four members of the City Council who voted to settle the lawsuit. They clearly balanced the considerable risks in continuing to fight how we fill City Council seats. Would I have liked to keep at-large voting? Yes. Was it the economically prudent and smart thing to do to continue a multi-year battle costing potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to our city? No.
The four City Council members who voted to settle the lawsuit put the city’s economic health before their own self-interests. Their vote to settle and go to district voting places their continued occupation of their seat at risk. That was the right thing to do.
The lone vote by Councilwoman Marsha McLean against the settlement reflects a vote to put the economic health of our city in extreme peril. Voting against the settlement like she did would subject our city to a potentially devastating loss, millions of dollars more than the $352,000 settlement. Plain and simple, it was a vote to potentially bankrupt our city.
Ask yourself this: If the city decided not to settle, would you be upset if the city of Santa Clarita was ordered to pay a $50-plus-million judgment? And still end up with district voting at the end of the day? Yes, you would. You would be furious. I would be furious. And that was a real possibility.