The city of Santa Clarita hosted its second hearing Thursday in its ongoing effort to resolve a lawsuit over an alleged California Voting Rights Act violation.
A complaint filed in December 2021 by Sebastian Cazares and Michael Cruz alleged the city’s at-large elections have denied Latino residents an opportunity to elect their candidate of choice, in violation of the 2001 state law.
The law, which has led to threats of litigation up and down the state, left the city — which was also sued over an alleged CVRA violation in 2014 — as the largest city in America that elects its council at large, according to a letter from Scott Rafferty, the plaintiffs’ counsel, to the city sent Thursday.
During his comments at the beginning of Thursday’s hearing, which he delivered via Zoom, Rafferty praised the city for its plans to change, but also levied a somewhat-veiled threat if the transition isn’t done in what he considers their agreed-upon manner.
“I hope the city stays with the agreed map,” Rafferty said, adding he didn’t have a problem with some of the minor changes suggested by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce, which indicated a preference for keeping Circle J Ranch and Skyline Ranch together in their respective districts. “Otherwise, we’ve submitted our letters showing the original map that we had. That’s much, much better, but it’s not the compromise that we agreed to, and we’re keeping our word.”
Thursday’s hearing started with a presentation from Doug Johnson, the city’s demographer, who reviewed the federal and state laws that govern the rules for drawing a district in the electoral maps, as well as the different proposals that resulted from residents’ input at the last hearing.
Johnson offered a more granular level of review for the revisions that have been proposed by the public after the first hearing, noting one instance where a Census block separated nine homes from their neighbors in a separate district, which could be remedied without much difficulty.
The meeting then opened up for public feedback, with 15 speaking up, and six calling for the adoption of the agreed-upon joint map, and the rest citing various concerns with the process or the currently proposed maps.
Several residents questioned why, if one of the federal laws cited by Johnson during his introduction called for no racial gerrymandering, then how could a Latino-majority district created by patching together Newhall with a western swath of Canyon Country not be racial gerrymandering.
Kahn Scolnick, legal counsel for the city of Santa Clarita, said the gerrymandering issue was one of the arguments the California Supreme Court was considering on behalf of the city of Santa Monica, where he also represented the defendants in a CVRA lawsuit. However, he said he couldn’t say for certain whether a decision by the court in favor of the city of Santa Monica would be enough to impact the city of Santa Clarita’s case.
One of the reasons why the city announced the settlement in April 2022, according to a statement from Scolnick at the time the settlement was announced, which remains true today, is that no CVRA lawsuit had ever been successfully defended in court.
The first meeting welcomed about 30 to 40 people and resulted in nine new proposed maps generated by the demographer the city contracted with for the purposes of drawing the new district boundaries in compliance with the law.
At the end of Thursday’s hearing, the council decided to whittle the choices down to two maps they’ll consider next month: one would be incorporating the changes suggested to the proposed joint map by the SCV Chamber of Commerce, along with minor tweaks that were identified and intended to keep neighborhoods together; and the second map would the proposed map with some of the chamber’s suggestions, except for the ones that the plaintiffs objected to, where the districts were not contiguous, which was identified by Rafferty as a potential violation of the Fair Maps Act.
The city has maintained throughout the process that it does not agree with the plaintiffs’ contention that Santa Clarita’s at-large elections deny Latino voters an opportunity to choose their preferred candidate.
Several members of the City Council shared the same sentiment during their public comments toward the end of Thursday’s hearing.
“So we’re now going to be separated by something that we’ve never been separated by before — it’s called race,” said Santa Clarita City Councilwoman Laurene Weste. “And I’m sorry to see us even have to have that discussion,” she added, likening the redistricting process to the way redlining used to be used to discriminate against minorities.
The terms of the hearing process, which the city announced as a result of last year’s settlement, call for revisions to the publicly submitted maps to be given to the city’s demographer by April 21.
The Santa Clarita City Council is then planning to hold a first reading of the ordinance at a special meeting Monday, May 1, in Council Chambers.
If the map is approved with a motion at the first reading, it’ll then move on to a second reading during a regularly scheduled City Council meeting May 23.
Any additional feedback that residents would like to share must be given by April 21 to [email protected]. The city also posts the maps and districting information at santa-clarita.com/city-hall/district-elections#anchor-news.