Years of protracted legal wrangling are expected to come to a conclusion Tuesday during a special meeting at Santa Clarita City Hall, where council members are expected to decide on an electoral map, as well as which seats will be on the ballot in November 2024 versus 2026.
The hearing, the city’s fourth on the matter, is part of an agreed-upon settlement Santa Clarita announced in April 2022 to resolve the second lawsuit the city faced alleging its at-large elections disenfranchised Latino voters by denying them an opportunity to elect their candidate of choice.
In addition to district-based elections, the city consented to create a Latino-plurality district and that it would place that district, plus one other, on the ballot the next time City Council seats are up for election.
The two big decisions — what the map will look like and which districts will be on the ballot — are expected to be decided at the 6 p.m. meeting, according to its agenda.
The plaintiffs, Sebastian Cazares and Michael Cruz, initially filed the complaint and proposed solution of district elections in December 2021, with Councilman Bill Miranda referring to the subsequent maneuvering as a “frustrating” and “time-consuming” process. The first threat notice the city received over the situation, before the proposed settlement, was actually a threat letter sent prior to the pandemic.
“I can’t imagine there’s anyone who’s not happy this thing is coming to an end,” Miranda said, and sharing a sentiment expressed multiple times before by everyone on the dais, adding, “The end is not necessarily the end that everyone wants ….”
In a statement from the City Council announcing the settlement terms, the city noted its reason for settling was that no similar suit has ever been successfully defended — advice given to the city by its hired law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a firm also actively engaged in a similar suit for the city of Santa Monica. Ironically, one of the issues in that case expected to be discussed in front of the state’s Supreme Court is the legality of gerrymandering a Latino majority district that divides communities, a criticism levied against the proposed map in this case.
Scott Rafferty, the plaintiffs’ attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.
The City Council is expected to approve a version of the joint map that is substantially similar to the joint map initially put forth by the plaintiffs and the city, which created a plurality Latino district by combining most of Newhall with a carveout of western Canyon Country, known as District 1.
There are 16 changes gleaned through the hearing process identified on the map, which are largely are aimed at unifying “communities of interest,” or neighborhoods that share HOAs and resources, etc. The highlighted changes on the top of the list available on the City Council’s website note the map unifies Happy Valley in District 2 and the Shangri-La community in District 1.
Cruz’s comments indicated the revisions for the joint map that the city’s demographer called a “potentially final tune-up of the map,” known as Map 113, did not raise any serious objections for the plaintiffs.
“From the start of this process, I have always remained hopeful that both parties could agree to a joint map,” Cruz said. “During the last hearing, concerns were raised by members of the community, the demographer revised the map and map 113 was created. I believe map 113 addressed those issues and concerns.”
Miranda also said the City Council plans to take public input until the close of the meeting, but with a general consensus on the map, the more challenging decision facing the council is which districts will be up for election next year.
The choice puts the council in a bit of a spot.
The remedial district must be on the ballot in 2024 per the legal agreement, and neither Jason Gibbs nor Cameron Smyth live there. Since only two seats are slated for the ballot, unless one moves, it’s likely that only one could seek reelection, as things currently stand.
Miranda called the situation “a shame,” because both council members have done great work for the city.
Smyth, who is one of two who will be most affected by the outcome of Tuesday’s decision, is aware of the political realities of the situation.
“I fully expect that the council will adopt a map and timeline for the districts on Tuesday, and it is the end of a long process, considering the first letter we received was in February of 2020,” he said. “And whether we believe that (a move to) districts is the right choice or not, it’s time to make a decision.”