The Santa Clarita City Council delayed making a decision on its district-based map for the 2024 election, but despite the inaction, one of the plaintiffs appeared pleased by the progress made Monday.
The council was expected to approve its first reading of an electoral map to settle a lawsuit that alleged the city’s at-large elections violated the California Voting Rights Act. The city conducted its latest hearing, as called for in the suit’s settlement terms, in council chambers on Monday night.
Instead, council members voted to continue the hearing to May 30, which would then be an opportunity for the City Council to approve the first reading of a map in time to make the June 30 deadline for the changes that both sides agreed upon.
“I’m hopeful, I really am after hearing Mayor (Jason) Gibbs’ comments,” said Michael Cruz, one of two local plaintiffs. “I think a lot of progress was made tonight, and I’m hopeful that in the end we can agree upon a joint map.”
The new district map will take effect for the City Council’s November 2024 election, per the agreed-upon terms in the settlement of the lawsuit.
City leaders have repeatedly disagreed with the contentions in the lawsuit whose settlement brought them to Monday’s hearing, but they also have noted numerous times in the past that they felt as though they had no real choice in the matter.
“This is hard. There are people who support this and there are those who don’t,” Gibbs said Monday, placing himself in the latter category. “But if you look at the realities of the law, the CVRA has pretty much tied our hands.”
What Cruz liked about Gibbs’ comments, however, was his instructions for the city’s demographer. Following public input and the discussion, the new map to be discussed later this month keeps the Shangri-La community in Canyon Country together and puts Happy Valley in District 2, not the remedial district. The newly proposed map that seemed to be favored by the council and the plaintiffs also did a better job of keeping what are known as “communities of significance,” i.e. Circle J Ranch, Skyline Ranch and other major developments, in the same respective districts rather than splitting them.
Not long after Gibbs’ remarks, Councilman Cameron Smyth’s asked whether that meant the council needed to continue the hearing in order to discuss the newly proposed map, which City Attorney Joe Montes said was necessary.
About 13 residents and almost as many city staffers turned out to the hearing, which also included a few calls for the City Council to abandon the settlement at the 11th hour and take the plaintiffs back to court.
The other big decision facing the City Council, which may have been part of the closed session discussion scheduled for 5:30 p.m. that delayed the start of the 6 p.m. public meeting about 10 minutes, involved which districts would be on the ballot in the next election.
The terms of the settlement called for the city to place the so-called remedial district, which has a plurality of Latino voters, on the ballot in 2024. Most of the maps, including the agreed-upon joint map presented by the city and the plaintiffs, identified this as District 1. But the other district on the ballot, per the terms, is to be chosen by the council through the public hearing process.
That decision is now going to be discussed at the May 30 meeting in Council Chambers.
Tony Maldonado, a Santa Clarita resident, was one of the public commenters to call on the city to abandon the settlement and take the plaintiffs back to court, so as to avoid creating a “ghetto” in Santa Clarita, which he said District 1 would be.
In a statement during public comment near the beginning of the meeting, Scott Rafferty, the plaintiffs’ attorney, reiterated his threat that if the city “blindsided” his clients with major revisions, then he would be taking the city back to court over what’s now being called the Ferdman Map.
It appears, based on Monday’s discussion, that won’t be necessary.
“I’m very hopeful,” Cruz repeated after the meeting.
The city’s decision to settle, according to Kahn Scolnick, an attorney with the city’s hired law firm in the case, Gibson Dunn, was driven by the fact that no CVRA lawsuit has ever been successfully defended, which he noted was still the case as of the city’s last hearing on the settlement.
Gibson Dunn also represents the city of Santa Monica in a lawsuit over similar CVRA claims, a case that is currently in front of the California Supreme Court.
The city created a website to explain the timeline and plan for its electoral changes here: santa-clarita.com/city-hall/district-elections.