Jim de Bree | The format of city elections is subject to change


Now that the recall elections are behind us, perhaps more attention will be paid to the city council election process, a local political issue that seems to be rising and falling in importance. The City of Santa Clarita currently uses a universal voting system to elect city council members, but this is being challenged under California’s Voting Act.

In an overall system, the voters of the entire city elect all members of the city council.

A “district” voting system would divide the city into geographic districts. The voters in each district would then elect their representative, who must also live in that district.

The CVRA was passed by California legislature in 2001 to amend the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 with a general election versus a by-election. The CVRA lowered the threshold for determining a decrease in the vote of minority voters through a general voting process.

What makes the CVRA so powerful is that jurisdictions, including cities, school districts, water districts, and other municipal bodies with elected officials, can be sued if they elect their governing body with an all-electoral system or a mixed electoral system that includes an at. contains -large component.

If the court rules against a jurisdiction, the jurisdiction must change its electoral system, draw fair district boundaries according to state-mandated guidelines, and pay the plaintiff’s lawyers, experts, and other costs. In certain limited situations, plaintiffs may also be awarded monetary damages if they can demonstrate that they have suffered financial damage.

The CVRA was introduced because the California attorney general was unable to oversee local jurisdictions to prevent the dilution of minority voters under federal law. The CVRA addresses this by encouraging lawyers to find plaintiffs to bring lawsuits and seek damages.

The system is somewhat similar to the recently enacted Texas Anti-Abortion Act in that essentially all of the monetary damage awarded is paid to bounty hunters who are used to thwart a prevalent practice. It will be interesting to see if the CVRA is affected by the inevitable litigation that will challenge Texas law.

A Google search for the term “CVRA lawsuit comparisons” yields numerous results from municipalities and other districts. I have been unable to count the severance payments paid, but they clearly exceed $ 100 million in taxpayer-funded dollars. The city of Santa Monica alone has so far spent $ 17 million defending itself in court, and if it loses it will potentially pay another $ 22 million to plaintiffs. This case is pending in the California Supreme Court.

If you look at the last few ballots, you will see that the local school districts and water districts have moved from grand to district elections. Presumably they did so because the cost of defending the process was, by and large, prohibitive.

One remaining local election is that of the Santa Clarita City Council. However, the city is not immune from litigation. Back in 2013, a lawsuit was filed against the city alleging that its electoral practices violated this CVRA. Since then, the city has come a long way in this regard. How much this has cost Santa Clarita taxpayers to date is uncertain.

Part of the 2013 litigation settlement was agreeing to hold city council elections concurrently with primaries and / or even-year parliamentary elections. Previously there were special elections with a low turnout. This change has increased the cost of running a campaign – ironically, incumbents are favored and likely increased the influence of special interests.

One has to wonder why the city has not, like so many other cities, moved to a district-by-district electoral process. Critics claim this is because several of the city council members live in close proximity to each other and not all of them could be re-elected if the city were to move to a district-based voting system.

In February 2020, Scott Rafferty, a Northern California attorney representing a group called Neighborhood Elections Now, sent a letter to the city threatening a lawsuit. The city’s response was delayed by COVID-19 and the 2020 census results, which included data needed to draw the district lines in case the city put in place a district-based electoral process. The census data was recently released.

If the city does not start a district electoral process, Mr Rafferty is likely to initiate an undoubtedly costly process. It’s not clear where things are now. The city may be awaiting the outcome of the California Supreme Court decision on the Santa Monica case.

On the other hand, the professional fee meter is running and further delays are likely to cost the city and its taxpayers.

We should know more in the next few weeks.

Jim de Bree is a resident of Valencia.

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