Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures
Resolution to Switch to District-based Elections
Santa Clarita City Council, 3-19-2020


Put on notice by a California Voting Rights Act attorney, on March 19, 2020, the Santa Clarita City Council approved a resolution of intent to transition from at-large elections to a district-based system for future City Council elections. Henceforth, instead of selecting all five of their council representatives, each voter may select just one, and each resident will have just one designated representative on the council.



Abstract.

In 2014, the City of Santa Clarita was sued under the California Voting Rights Act. That suit was settled and ultimately resulted in the City changing the date of its Council elections from April to November of even numbered years. The City paid over 1 million dollars in attorney's fees to settle the suit between the payment made to plaintiff's and the City's own attorneys. However, because the City's Council seats continue to be elected at large, additional suits can be brought under the California Voting Rights Act, which allows for challenges to at-large election systems.

Since 2014, Elections Code section 10010 was passed (effective January 1, 2017 and amended as of January 1, 2020), which provides that prior to the filing of a lawsuit challenging an at large voting system under the California Voting Rights Act, a potential plaintiff must send a demand letter to the City. The City then has 45 days within which the City cannot be sued under the CVRA (a so-called "safe harbor"), and during which period the City may declare its intent to switch to election of its legislative body by districts. If a city council adopts such a resolution, then the city has a further 90-day safe harbor period during which it is again protected from litigation, and within which it must conduct multiple public hearings and adopt an ordinance switching to districts. The party who originally sent the demand letter can seek payment of up to $30,000as adjusted annually to the Consumer Price Index.

Since the passage of section 10010 numerous cities, school districts and other governmental agencies have received demand letters. The City of Santa Clarita received such a demand letter on Friday, February 7, 2020. 45 days from that date would be March 23, 2020. The letter was sent by Scott Rafferty, a Northern California attorney who has sent many similar letters to other cities, has refused to identify his clients and who is now legally entitled to thirty thousand dollars by virtue of sending the letter to Santa Clarita, regardless of what happens from this point.

While the vast majority of cities that have received such demand, letters have opted to switch to election by districts, some have attempted to litigate. No City has successfully defended such a suit. Palmdale lost at both the trial court and court of appeal, paying over 4 million dollars to plaintiffs. In those instances where cities have lost litigation, the court mandates a switch to elections by district, and the court, not the citizens or the city council, orders a districting plan into place, as well as the timing of the election and the sequencing of the districts. For example, in Palmdale, the trial court invalidated the results of a November at-large election where that city's first African-American councilmember was elected, and ordered a new special election by districts in all council districts in a plan developed by the plaintiffs and selected by the court over the plan developed by the defending City.

The cities of Santa Clara and Santa Monica have pending litigation in which they each lost at the trial court level and are now in front of the court of appeal. In Santa Clara, the trial court awarded the plaintiff's attorneys over 3 million dollars. In Santa Monica, the plaintiff's attorneys are seeking over $22 million.

Unlike a federal voting rights act case, where a plaintiff must establish that switching to districts will actually remedy the vote dilution of the minority group challenging the existing election system through the creation of a majority-minority district, the California Voting Rights Act does not require such proof.

Thus, the City is faced with the choice of litigating a challenge that has not ever been won, potentially incurring millions of dollars in legal fees, and losing control of how districts are set up and sequenced in the City, or following the ninety-day statutory "safe harbor" process to establish districts.

The attached resolution, if adopted by the City Council, is within the 45-day safe harbor period under Elections Code section 10010, and provides the City with an additional 90-day safe-harbor period within which to conduct 5 or more public hearings to consider potential district boundaries, as well as an ordinance that would switch the City Council to election by districts — additional legislation adopted in the last few years allows a City Council to approve such a transition by ordinance.

Prior to consideration of such an ordinance, the City must conduct two public hearings to solicit input from the public regarding the composition of the districts. The City may undertake outreach to the public, including to non-English-speaking communities, concerning the districting process and to encourage public participation.

Subsequent to the two public hearings, proposed district maps are generated by the City and posted for at least 7 days and two more hearings are held to solicit input on the proposed district boundaries, as well as the sequencing of districts for staggered terms of office. At the conclusion of these hearings, the Council can adopt an ordinance switching to districts.

This process is further complicated by the recent novel Covid-19 corona virus pandemic and the federal and state executive orders limiting public gatherings and requiring social distancing. However, the language of the California Voting Rights Act does not accommodate pandemics, Mr. Rafferty has been consistent in his commitment to have Santa Clarita switch to districts in 2020, and hence the City will attempt to comply with the mandates of Elections Code §10010 and the relevant executive orders, while recognizing those orders may change so as to further constrain the districting process, or even prohibit it from going forward as scheduled

If the City Council adopts the attached Resolution of Intention, the scheduled public hearings will be live-streamed and recorded. The City will facilitate social distancing in the hearing room. Anyone who does not wish to attend the hearings in public should consider submitting comments in writing. Additionally, the demographer proposed to be hired by the City will provide both a website and a web tool so that members of the public can submit their proposed district map ideas to the City for consideration. While this is not an ideal public process, if the City completes the districting process for 2020, State and Federal law mandate a "re-districting" occur prior to the 2022 election, based upon Federal census data results in 2021. State law mandates additional public participation and hearings for that re-districting process, and hopefully the current limitations on social interactions and gatherings will no longer be in place.

Attached to this staff report are the demand letter received February 7, 2020. The resolution required by Elections Code section 10010 is also attached, along with a proposed schedule of meetings and hearings to comply with the pre-requisites to consideration of an ordinance by the Council that would switch the City Council to election by districts.

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