Santa Clarita City Council members are set to once again discuss a controversial topic in closed session next week: the city’s efforts to move to a district-based election as the result of its attempt to settle a lawsuit.
The city is currently months behind a previously announced timeline for a proposed map with district boundaries, which was Nov. 8, according to a court settlement first proposed Dec. 29, 2021.
Expected soon is a plan from the city on the process for at least two public hearings slated for the discussion of maps that would determine Santa Clarita’s districts for City Council elections for at least the next six years, starting with 2024 election.
“We’re trying to announce a joint map,” said Scott Rafferty, the attorney for two plaintiffs, Michael Cruz and Sebastian Cazares, who brought forth the lawsuit alleging the city was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act with its at-large elections. “I’m optimistic — that’s all I can say.”
The city has yet to release a map regarding how it thinks the city should be split into five distinct areas of representation for its council members, with at least two of those spots expected to be on the ballot in November 2024.
It could choose to propose the plaintiffs’ map at the hearings, but that would put the incumbents on that ballot in a bit of a tough spot.
The basis of the violation is that the plaintiffs believe the rights of a protected class — in this instance, Latino voters — are being disenfranchised by the city’s at-large elections. Creating five districts, including one that has a Latino plurality, would remedy the alleged violation, according to the settlement agreed to by both sides.
City Council members have declined to comment on the pending litigation, leaving nothing but speculation available as to why the city thus far has not met its agreed-upon Election Day timeline to present a proposed map.
Part of that discussion is the fact that a proposed map from the plaintiffs would put three current council members — Councilwoman Marsha McLean, and Councilmen Bill Miranda and Cameron Smyth — in the same district.
Smyth’s current term expires in 2024, along with that of Mayor Jason Gibbs. The terms of McLean, Miranda and Councilwoman Laurene Weste expire in 2026.
The other complication to consider for current council members is that the terms of the already agreed-upon settlement call for the city’s district with a Latino plurality to be on the ballot in the next election. Under the only map that’s been proposed so far, that would be a district composed mostly of Newhall, and the west side of Canyon Country. Weste is the only current council member who lives in that potential district.
The question then becomes: What other district would be on the ballot in 2024?
Neither of the current City Council members who would be up for election in 2024 — Gibbs and Smyth — live in the proposed Latino-plurality district, and they live in different districts on the plaintiffs’ map. So, if that map or a similar one is used, only one would be able to run for reelection, unless one of them moved.
Weste could theoretically run again for that seat based on her address, but she was just elected to the council in November.
Rafferty, a Northern California-based lawyer, expressed confidence that residents would turn out to support the redistricting process.
“There’s going to be substantial support for district elections across the political spectrum and from a number of the parts of the city who want to be better represented,” he said Friday.
A call to Gibbs seeking comment on the process was not immediately returned Friday.
The city has the option of presenting its own map, but there’s been no public indication so far that one is forthcoming.
The settlement announced in April spells out a timeline for the hearings, which calls for the first hearing to take place by March 3, 2023. The next hearing is, per the agreement, to take place no more than 30 days after that.
At the first hearing, the city can propose the plaintiffs’ map and its own, or just the plaintiffs’ map, according to the settlement.
“If they are able to do so, as they expect they will be, the (City) Council will approve and publish a revised joint map in advance of the second public hearing,” according to the settlement terms.
However, the settlement also lays out language for an eventuality in which neither side comes to an agreement after a pair of public hearings:
“In the event that plaintiffs are dissatisfied with the map that emerges from their discussions with the council and/or the two public hearings described above, they may file a motion to set aside the map in favor of a proposal of their own,” according to the settlement.
At that point, further discussion will be limited, according to court documents, to keep costs low and ensure that a timely settlement is reached, and the court would decide after each side files its arguments.
“The district map will be finalized as soon as is practicable,” the settlement notes, “and it will (be) adopted no later than June 30, 2023.”