City to discuss CVRA lawsuit settlement in closed session

Santa Clarita City Hall, as pictured on Feb. 26. Dan Watson/The Signal

Santa Clarita City Council members plan to have another closed session discussion about their settlement of a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.  

The special meeting, scheduled to happen ahead of the annual council reorganization, eventually is expected to bring a discussion over how the city will be drawn into districts for at least its next three elections.  

The city has not yet released a map for public discussion of what it thinks voting districts would look like in Santa Clarita, while the plaintiffs in the lawsuit released a map last year

An attorney for clients suing the city over an alleged violation of the CVRA noted Monday that Santa Clarita is the nation’s largest city to not have some form of a district-based election, a contention he said has not been challenged by the city. 

Scott Rafferty, counsel for the plaintiffs in the CVRA lawsuit, also said the attorneys for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the city’s counsel, are the best he’s worked with and that he’s hopeful a collaborative map that remedies concerns and garners community support is the outcome. 

The city has been under pressure from outside forces to look at a district-based election format since it was first sued over the matter in 2014.  

The city released an explanation in April of the decision to settle the most recent lawsuit over its at-large elections — in which voters choose three of five council members who live anywhere in the city, and then two, in a subsequent election.  

The city announced the decision to settle the lawsuit was motivated by the fact that CVRA lawsuits are costly to litigate and nearly impossible to win, according to a statement from Kahn Scolnick, a partner at Gibson Dunn, the city’s counsel in the lawsuit. City officials also noted at that time their discussion of a map would begin in earnest after the November election. 

“I want to be clear about why the city is settling this suit,” he wrote. “It’s not because the council members believe that at-large elections are diluting Latino voting power, or that district-based elections would improve Latino voting power or otherwise help the city. The council members all prefer the current at-large system because it encourages candidates and elected officials to respond to the needs of the entire city, not just one small corner of it.” 

The plaintiffs are seeking the creation of one district of the five that would have a plurality of voters who are Latino voting-age members of the population, if a majority district is not possible under the considerations both sides are negotiating, Rafferty said Monday. 

“We’re really striving to come up with a single map,” he said.  

“What we’re also looking at is maintaining the integrity of a group of neighborhoods that has never really been represented on the City Council. And this is a reform that’s intended to work for voters of all races. But it’s also essential to maintain the integrity of neighborhoods to have an effective voting rights remedy,” he added. “And it’s not just the results of who’s on the council, but it’s also the need to engage these communities in the political life of Santa Clarita.” 

Rafferty also noted Santa Clarita is somewhat unique in that when a council has a majority that lives in one part of a city, they often don’t know what’s going on or care as much about other areas, which he didn’t think was the case in Santa Clarita. 

“But the fact remains that they’re not fully accountable to those neighborhoods (that haven’t been as well-represented in the past),” he said. “They don’t run into these people when they go shopping. And they can’t easily be challenged at the ballot box. So, there’s accountability. And there’s also the fact this is a long-term reform.” 

The creation of a district-based map of the city could have an impact on the city well into its future, he said.  

“It’s about what Santa Clarita looks like for the next two, three decades and beyond,” he said. “And, you know, it hasn’t changed for two decades, basically, it’s been a lot of the same people.” 

Scolnick’s statement said the city could revert to at-large in 2030, noting that move could also risk another lawsuit, which the city stated is its intent to avoid. 

A map proposed by Rafferty looks to respect several of the historically recognized communities in Santa Clarita, with respect to certain areas, but the most recently released demographics indicated a portion of Newhall would be adjoined to a portion of western Canyon Country in order to create a plurality of Latino voters in one of five districts. 

Both sides noted that at this stage of the discussion, any additional maps under current discussion — with updated demographics potentially available as soon as Thursday — would be confidential to an ongoing legal discussion.  

In its settlement agreement announced in the spring, the city said there will be two hearings after the November 2022 election to fine-tune a district map, once approved by the council.  

“The city welcomes everyone’s participation in those hearings,” Scolnick wrote, “and will take seriously every resident’s views about how the district lines should be drawn.” 

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