In a split vote, Murrieta City Council has approved a resolution allowing them to explore the option of moving from at-large to a by-district election system during a special meeting Monday, May 8.
Like surrounding cities, Murrieta is considering the change in response to a letter received by the legal firm of Shenkman & Hughes claiming the city’s current voting system dilutes the ability of Latinos – considered a protected class – to elect city council candidates of their choosing.
The letter claims that the at-large system violates the California Voting Rights Act and demands that the city transition from at-large to district-based city council elections and threatens legal action if that demand is not met.
“If the City of Murrieta does not bring its elections into compliance with the law promptly, we will have no choice but to file a lawsuit to protect the voting rights of the Latino residents of Murrieta,” the letter, written by Kevin Shenkman from the law firm, reads.
Assistant City Attorney Chris Cameron gave council a presentation and explained why districts matter and how they change influence in elections.
Cameron explained to council that if you have 20 opposition voters in an at large election with 120 total voters, those 20 opposition voters have less influence which is cause for concern in a fair vote.
“However, if you move to a district election then essentially you are going to split that 120-person city into four districts of say. 30 voters each, 20 opposition voters now have a lot of say in the one district in which they reside,” Cameron said. “That’s the basic fundamental difference of how the systems work.”
Cameron said that the CVRA, signed into state law in 2012, is forcing cities into district elections. The law, she said, is essentially making it easier for a postelection challenge under the California version of the Federal Voting Rights Act.
Cameron said there are four tests the state looks at and only two of the four need to occur for there to be a voting rights issue, making it easier for challenges to occur. She said in California, all you have to have for a challenge is a “particular race” voting as a “particular block” not able to elect their preferred candidate “because of the effect of the majority of voting throughout the rest of the city.”
Cameron explained that liability is only determined by the presence of “Statistically identified racially polarized voting” and that there is no need for prejudice or discrimination. She said this is the reason many cities in California are choosing to make the switch from at-large to by-district voting, something that is up to each city to decide for themselves.
Cameron said that the cases are very expensive to defend against and when cities lose the awards are “substantially high… That becomes a consideration in making the transition,” she said.
Mayor Pro Tem Jonathan Ingram said the move was a last-ditch effort for the state to take away local control from cities.
“This is the ultimate way of the state taking away our local control and I absolutely believe that,” he said. “I believe that local control is imperative and that it is our constitutional right to speak up as residents and say ‘no,’ we are not going to allow this.’”
Ingram said Shenkman gets paid, essentially for sending threatening letters to cities and that he didn’t believe Shenkman had any evidence to substantiate the city had done anything inappropriate.
“I disagree with that wholeheartedly,” he said. “I would never support this. I will not support this. They are trying to divide us and I stand for unity. The people need to stand up and help defend us to support our city,” Ingram said.
Councilman Kelly Seyarto said the council did not want to make the move to voting by district and that it was “extortion.”
“We absolutely don’t want this,” Seyarto said. “This is ridiculous; this is absolutely ridiculous. This is legal extortion is what this is.”
Seyarto said that the problem the city had was with the changeover to district elections would be the financial cost to defend a lawsuit if one came about.
“We could spend $2 million. We can still explore and formulate a plan not to have districts, but we need to limit how much money it is going to cost us to do that,” he said. “This infuriates me to even have to have this hearing because of this knucklehead.”
Seyarto said that while he agreed with Ingram, council is a steward of the taxpayer dollars and, “I can’t spend 2 million of your dollars and losing and knowing that there is a potential to lose but I can continue the process so that we can get more information that we need to see if we can stop this nonsense. I want to fight like heck.”
While he is against moving to by-districts, Councilman Randon Lane said no city in the state had successfully beaten a CVRA lawsuit and that was something that needs to be considered.
“We are in charge of the taxpayer dollars and we have to make sure that we are making good decisions,” he said. “This is basically an exploring process that we are talking about today.”
Lane pointed out that whether the city loses or wins there is no benefit. Should the city go to court and lose the city would have to pay their own, plus the plaintiff’s attorney fees. Should they win, the city would still responsible for their own legal fees. Either way the cost could quickly surpass millions of dollars such as in the case of Palmdale which spent $4.7 million trying to defend against a CVRA lawsuit.
“We sit up here and I argue local control all the time. I believe that local control is so very important,” Lane said. “The problem is the state of California makes decisions and rulings that hurt cities all of the time.”
Lane said while he was extremely opposed to it by-district elections they have the option to take a look at the demographics of the city.
“We have to go down that path,” he said. “I can’t be in the position that as a city we fight something that nobody else has won and spend $4.7 million because we don’t have $4.7 million.”
For Mayor Rick Gibbs, the issue boils down to one thing.
“At this time, I can say the obvious. We are being screwed by the legislature of the state of California. That is all there is to it,” he said.
Ultimately, the resolution passed 3-1 with Ingram voting against it. With the passage of the resolution, the city now must hold four public meetings to discuss the issue, the first of those meetings is scheduled for May 16, at 6 p.m.