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Judge Orders Voting Rights Lawsuit Against City of Santa Monica to Move Forward

 
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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated that Santa Monica held district-based elections before the City Charter was amended in 1946. At large elections for three Commissioner posts had been held since 1915.

June 14, 2017 -- A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ordered a voting rights lawsuit on behalf of the Pico Neighborhood Association and a local Latina candidate against the City of Santa Monica to proceed, rejecting the City’s effort to have it thrown out.

In the June 7 ruling, Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos overruled a motion by the City to toss the suit as allegedly failing to provide evidence of racially polarized voting, or evidence white city voters acted as a bloc to defeat Latino-preferred candidates.

The case heads to trial October 30, although the attorney for the plaintiffs, Kevin Shenkman, said he anticipates the City seeking a delay.

“The City is delaying this as long as possible,” said Shenkman, who filed the litigation in the Spring of 2016. “They know they’re going to lose, yet they persist. The council is hanging onto power. It’s all about power.”

The City Attorney’s Office, asked to comment, said, “The City of Santa Monica continues to believe the lawsuit lacks merit.”

Dozens of cities across California either have been threatened with voting rights litigation, or in fact sued, and are moving away from at-large voting as a result.

Shenkman says the hold out is Santa Monica -- a city which is outspoken in both its liberalism and belief in diversity ("City of Santa Monica the “One Hold Out” in Voting Rights Litigation, Lawyer Says," May 18, 2017).

“The City has already spent more than $2 million defending the power and privilege of five City Council Members who oppose the more inclusive district elections,” said Oscar De La Torre, a school board member, PNA activist and head of the Pico Youth and Family Center.

De La Torre ran for a seat on the council in last November’s election and came in sixth place in a 10-candidate field for four seats. The winners were the four top vote getters, all of whom were incumbents.

Maria Loya, his wife, is a plaintiff in the voting rights lawsuit who unsuccessfully ran for council in 2004.

The suit claims that citywide elections violate the California Voting Rights Act, which prohibits at-large elections if they can be shown to racially polarize voting. It says in doing so, the City’s at-large system also violates the Equal Protection clause of the state constitution.

The plaintiffs contend the City of Santa Monica’s at-large elections system was always meant to prevent candidates from non-Anglo sections of the city from winning representation on the City Council.

It claims the City undermines the impact of minority voters by using at-large districts, a system in which the entire city is considered a single voting district and the white majority vote can easily overwhelm a minority voting bloc.

By comparison, district elections create separate voting districts throughout the city, and ballots are cast for candidates within each district.

The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 cleared a path for minority groups to prove at-large elections diminish their votes and to sue local governing bodies to force them to switch to district elections or alternatives meant to achieve more minority representation.

The CVRA expands on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, landmark legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.

Shenkman’s suit against Santa Monica City zeros in on the 1946 City Charter, which he said was changed to abandon district-by-district voting in favor of at-large council elections.

“Santa Monica's at-large elections were adopted to intentionally disenfranchise” Pico Neighborhood residents, said Shenkman, who is based in Malibu.

Accoding to City officials, between 1915 and 1946, the City was governed by three commissioners, each elected at large -- a Commissioner of Public Safety, who also had the title of Mayor, a Commissioner of Public Works and a Commissioner of Finance.

After 1946, the Commissioners were eliminated and the City moved to a council-manager form of government with council members each also elected at large, City officials said. 

At the time supporters argued that the change expanded the potential impact of minority voters by enlarging the governing body from three members to the seven-member structure that now exists.

The City argues at-large voting enhances the influence of minorities by making the entire seven-member council accountable to all voters.

Whatever “discriminatory animus may have been present” when the City Charter was amended in 1946, the City also argues voters have since re-affirmed at-large voting twice, in 1975 and 2002, the judge notes in ruling.

Although the City’s attorneys said the plaintiffs had failed to provide evidence of injury or facts showing Latino-preferred candidates would have won office under an alternative electoral system, Palazuelos ruled the plaintiffs’ allegations were sufficient to move to trial.

The judge details the two sides of the legal fight.

The plaintiffs cite a string of elections in which they say Latino-preferred candidates -- from Tony Vazquez (now the only council member) in 1994 to De La Torre in 2016 -- lost council bids because of a white voting bloc that secured elections of the top vote getters, all of whom were also non-Hispanic.

About 13 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic. Since 1946, only one of 71 council members has been Hispanic, the suit says.

The impact of at-large elections was analyzed in 1990 after the City established a 15-member Charter Review Commission.

The findings included discontinuing the at-large system. The panel was acting in part on the research of a historian from the California Institute of Technology who said the circumstances surrounding the 1946 charter issue showed “substantial evidence that the current charter was, from a voting discrimination point of view, suspect.

The historian, J. Morgan Kousser, found a strong correlation between supporters of the charter’s at-large system and opponents of fair employment legislation.

He said there was no direct evidence in his short review (about 70 hours) of discriminatory intent by the charter’s framers, but a “sufficient basis” existed nonetheless for a prima facie case against the City.

 


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