It’s time to move on.
As the city of Santa Clarita began its hearing process Wednesday for the transition to district-based elections, some of the residents who testified were understandably upset about the change: Switching to district elections, instead of the previous at-large elections, is likely to divide the community, rather than unite it, and the specific goal of the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit that forced the switch is to divide Santa Clarita along racial lines, creating a single district with a plurality of Latino voters.
We agree with those who say it’s a bad idea. One need look no further than the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to see what can happen when four district representatives control the decision-making, leaving the fifth district — ours — out in the cold and on the receiving end of decisions that are not in our community’s best interests.
But our point here is not whether switching to districts is a good idea. We didn’t want it. The City Council didn’t want it. The leadership at City Hall didn’t want it.
Rather, our point here today is, continuing to argue the merits of district vs. at-large elections is a pointless exercise.
The city, recognizing that no municipality has ever successfully challenged a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit like the one Santa Clarita was facing, chose to cut its losses and, rather than spending millions of taxpayer dollars in a futile effort to win an unwinnable case, the city agreed to settle the lawsuit.
Simply put, the law as it exists, and as it has been consistently applied in the courts, was not in Santa Clarita’s favor. The city could have chosen to fight it anyway, but once the city agreed to settle the lawsuit, that was it.
So now, the question at hand is no longer, “Which system serves Santa Clarita better: At-large elections or elections by district?”
No. The question at hand is, how can we make the best of the situation?
The current proposed district map, which bears a great degree of similarity to the one initially put forth by the plaintiffs in the case, has one district that makes no geographic sense whatsoever, except that it achieves the lawsuit’s goal of creating a mostly Latino district by combining a sliver of Canyon Country with the bulk of Newhall. Is there a hypothetical map that would make more sense while still meeting the requirements of the lawsuit settlement?
Citizens have the opportunity to contribute to the search for the answer. The city, as required by the lawsuit settlement, has created a webpage — www.santa-clarita.com/city-hall/district-elections — where citizens can view the current proposed map and develop their own suggestions for ways to revise it.
The site contains a link to a mapping tool, where you can try your hand at demography and mapmaking.
Maps generated by the public are due to the city’s hired demographer by April 3. They will then be published on the website on April 6, and a second public hearing is to be held a week later. At that April 13 hearing, the council is to provide direction to the demographer based on the public input and the council members’ own input.
The process will continue until May 23, when the council is scheduled to adopt an official map.
Make no mistake: It’s going to happen. Our community’s task now is to create a map that meets the settlement terms and makes the most sense for the citizens of Santa Clarita.
Further, it may be time for public discussion of additional alternatives. As we said, one of the issues with a five-district map is that it creates the potential for one district to be disfavored in city decision-making, since council members will no longer be accountable to the entire city. They will only be accountable to their district.
In a perfect world — or even just a world with five at-large council members — we would submit that five council members are plenty for a city the size of Santa Clarita.
But switching to district-based elections is a game-changer. Is there an alternative to expand the council in such a way as to diminish the likelihood of one district being disfavored by a future council? For example: Suppose a structure was adopted to add two “at-large” council seats representing the entire city, in addition to the five districts?
With five district-elected members and two at-large, the voting dynamic would change. That 4-1 majority could suddenly become a much more tenuous 4-3 majority, reducing the likelihood of four districts “ganging up” on one, and also guaranteeing that at least two council members are accountable to the entire city, not just a sliver of it.
Is that a possible solution? Maybe, maybe not. Obviously, such a structural change would take a great deal of time, study and careful consideration.
Regardless, we’d like to see the discussion shifting away from the advantages and disadvantages of districts vs. at-large, because that ship has sailed. Districts are coming, end of story. We need to make the best of it.
California law and the courts have left Santa Clarita holding a basket of lemons. Let’s make lemonade.