Santa Clarita is nearing the end of the public-input portion for the city’s transition to district-based elections, with the two biggest questions expected to be answered Monday: What will the city’s five districts look like, and which districts will be on the ballots?
The answers to both questions are likely to play into the politics of what gets hashed out in City Hall during the 6 p.m. public hearing next week in Council Chambers.
Monday’s meeting is the latest in a series of hearings the city agreed to in order to settle a second lawsuit over an alleged California Voting Rights Act violation.
The lawsuit was filed in December 2021 by two residents, Sebastian Cazares and Michael Cruz, who allege the city has denied Latino voters the chance to elect their candidate of choice with its at-large elections.
The city, after moving its elections from April to November about five years ago in response to the last time it was sued over an alleged CVRA violation, agreed to move to districts in April 2022.
The city pointed out it disagreed with the plaintiffs, but also that a courtroom victory was unlikely, an outlook shared by its law firm, Gibson Dunn, which is in the middle of a five-year, multimillion-dollar lawsuit on behalf of another client, the city of Santa Monica, over a similar allegation.
“It is unfortunate that our city was forced to make the transition to by-district elections, seeing how Santa Clarita has thrived under the current at-large process,” said Mayor Jason Gibbs in a statement released when the meetings were announced in February. “However, we are committed to working with our residents to ensure the transition and map creation is a transparent and collaborative process.”
In addition to moving to districts, the city agreed to create an electoral map that includes a district with a Latino plurality (if one with a majority is not feasible); and the city agreed to put that district — or District 1, for labeling purposes on the proposed maps — up for the next election in 2024.
In order to create the Latino majority, or plurality, based on what demographic data is being used, demographers took most of Newhall and combined it with a large swath of west Canyon Country.
And therein lies the first decision facing the council: Which is the other district that will go on the ballot in November 2024, a question that could make things challenging for the incumbents.
“We know that District 1 is required to be on the ballot for 2024 per the agreement and then it will be up to the council to discuss and determine which other district would also fall in 2024,” Councilman Cameron Smyth said Friday.
He also acknowledged what hasn’t been a part of the public discussion much so far: It’s likely that either Gibbs or Smyth will be on the outside looking in come November 2024, unless there’s a significant reorganization, or seats are added to the council, neither of which are expected, based on the discussion to date.
The natural electoral progression puts both Gibbs and Smyth, who were elected to their current seats in 2020, on the ballot in 2024, but neither currently lives in the remedial district. Hence, it seems likely only one of them will be able to run for re-election in 2024.
The other three council members, Marsha McLean, Bill Miranda and Laurene Weste, were just elected in November and their terms expire in 2026.
At the last public hearing, the city identified a preference of two maps: one was the agreed-upon joint map with a couple of changes suggested by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce to keep communities like Circle J Ranch and Skyline Ranch together, as well as a few smaller tweaks to keep neighborhoods contiguous, which raised no objections from the plaintiffs; and a version of the joint map with all of the chamber’s suggestions, which includes a noncontiguous district, an issue the plaintiffs’ attorney, Scott Rafferty, mentioned during his comments at the last hearing.
There are also a couple of other options that have been submitted since the last public hearing April 13. However, Rafferty basically said any option other than the approved joint map with the approved changes could land both sides back in court.
“I look forward to hearing from the public, as well as the rest of the council, and to having a discussion,” Smyth added. “I certainly am aware of the political component that will be part of that discussion, obviously by selecting a district, it’s going to impact one of the current members, and that’s never comfortable — but it’s a required discussion and a required vote that we’re going to have to take.”