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Voting Rights Case in Spotlight Again

By Jorge Casuso

November 14, 2023 -- For the third time in six months, speakers on Monday weighed in on the voting rights lawsuit filed in 2016 by Latino plaintiffs against the City -- this time urging the Council not to settle the case.

A dozen members of Santa Monica's political establishment testified at the special closed session meeting after learning the plaintiff's attorney, Kevin Shenkman, had submitted a proposed settlement amount.

"I have not seen the letter," attorney Chris Harding told the Council, "but I assume it is millions of dollars."

A staunch opponent of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit now in its eighth year, Harding told the Council that it doesn't have "a legal basis for settling the case.”

"You cannot consent to a violation of the CVRA case when there is no evidence of such a violation," said Harding, who co-wrote an Amicus Brief filed in the California Supreme Court in 2021.

Speaking against a settlement -- which could lead to replacing the City's at-large election system with Districts -- were former mayors, elected officials and City Council candidates supported by Santa Monica's major political groups.

All urged the City to "stay the course" and continue fighting the case, which the Supreme Court sent back to an Appellate Court in August ("Supreme Court Reverses Voting Rights Ruling," August 24, 2023).

"You are being pressured by desperate people who are trying to wear you down," said Debbie Mulvaney, who has been involved in numerous Council campaigns.

"The constant revisiting of this issue needs to stop," she said, adding that she had come on her husband's birthday to testify for the third time. "Don't waste millions of taxpayer dollars that don't need to be spent when the City prevails."

During public comment, former Mayor Ted Winterer read a letter from former Mayor Tony Vazquez, another speaker read a letter from former Mayor Nat Trives and former Mayor Mike Feinstein testified on his own behalf.

"We've spent eight years on this with this kind of work," Feinstein said, visibly controlling his frustration. "Are you kidding me? And all this money we've spent on this. We just need to win this."

City officials have declined to provide data on how much has been spent fighting the case, citing attorney client privileges ("City Officials Won't Reveal Cost of Voting Rights Lawsuit Until Case is Closed," March 5, 2019).

In 2017 -- one year after the lawsuit was filed -- total fees paid to Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, the firm representing the City, were nearly $5 million, although the price tag included other legal matters, finance officials said at the time.

In a 2020 letter urging the Council to settle the case, Shenkman, the plaintiff's lead attorney, estimated the City had spent more than $10 million in legal fees ("OPINION -- An Open Letter to the Santa Monica City Council," May 8, 2020).

With the City terminating hundreds of workers due to the financial fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, "we will be reasonable in accommodating the City’s payment of our attorneys’ fees," Shenkman wrote.

The previous year, after Superior Court Judge Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, Shenkman had been seeking fees and expenses totaling $22.3 million ("Voting Rights Attorneys Seeks More than $22 Million i Legal Costs," June 4, 2019).

After the closed session Monday, City Attorney Doug Sloan did not report any action taken by the Council on Shenkman's latest offer to settle the case.

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