Murrieta City Council, along with a group of citizens, expressed their displeasure at being forced to consider a move to by-district elections thanks to the threat of a lawsuit by the legal firm of Shenkman & Hughes.
In a letter received by the city in March, Attorney Kevin Shenkman claims the city’s current voting system dilutes the ability of Latinos – considered a protected class – to elect city council candidates of their choosing and by doing so violates the California Voting Rights Act. In his letter, Shenkman demands that the city transition from at-large to district-based city council elections and threatens legal action if that demand is not met.
Murrieta isn’t the first city to be threatened by the Malibu-based law firm. Temecula is also considering making the move. Wildomar and Hemet both switched from at-large to by district elections after receiving the threatening letters which Shenkman & Hughes appear to be sending to all California cities using an at-large election system.
Currently 55 cities, 145 school districts, 20 community college districts, one county board of supervisors and eight water and other special districts are contemplating the change.
Assistant City Attorney Chris Cameron explained the issue to council before the public hearing commenced, saying 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.
According to Cameron, all that is needed for a challenge is a “particular race” voting as a “particular block” not able to elect their preferred candidate “because of the effect of majority 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 which is why many cities in California are choosing to make the switch from at-large to by-district voting.
CVRA cases are expensive to defend against and when cities lose the cost is “quite high” something that must be considered when making the decision to comply with the demand or fight a costly lawsuit in court, she said.
“The key issue here is if the city issues a challenge and loses, not only do they have to pay their legal expenses but the legal expenses of those challengers and those costs can be quite high,” she said. “The city attorney is not aware of any city in California that has been successful in fighting off a voting rights act challenge.”
Doug Johnson, founder and president of National Demographics explained the process of forming districts to council and the nearly 100 people who gathered for the meeting.
According to Johnson, the idea of districts is to give a voice to groups who feel they do not have anyone speaking for them on the council.
“It still takes the majority vote of the council to get anything done,” Johnson said. “It could be any issue that divides a community where the opposition in s geographically focused.”
Shenkman issues the challenges geographically, cities in southern Riverside County, Orange County and the north end of San Diego County have all been receiving the same letter threatening the lawsuit, Johnson said.
“He sends letters to just about everybody,” he said. “It is a huge shift statewide and right now this is the center of it, unfortunately.”
Johnson said the criteria used to develop the districts are an equal population, no racial gerrymandering, neighborhoods, keeping the districts compact and contiguous, boundaries – such as major roads – respect for voter’s wishes and continuity in office and planned future growth. Based on the city’s population, each district will have roughly 20,700 residents. After each U.S. census, the city will have to revisit and possibly redraw the lines based on the number of residents in each district to keep the numbers as close to equal as possible.
Councilman Randon Lane asked about the possibility of fighting the potential lawsuit, referencing the American Disability Act Lawsuits that were successfully defeated by several cities.
According to city Attorney Leslie Devaney, there had to be standing for the ADA lawsuits and many of those lawsuits there was not standing, such as the plaintiff being disabled or being hurt or damaged by the defendants in those lawsuits failure to comply with ADA law.
“Yes, this definitely feels like a shake-down lawsuit, it is brought by somebody who is taking advantage of it,” Devaney said. “The law is the law. The legislature has passed this law that requires cities comply after notice of intent.
According to Devaney, the CVRA lawsuits can be brought by anybody. The plaintiffs don’t have to be injured, they just have to have a reason to do so. Regardless of what the intent is, law offices such as Shenkman & Hughes can get a plaintiff and sue the cities and win if it is determined that there is polarized voting.
Cameron pointed out that even if the city were to win one lawsuit, another protected class could sue the city.
“Over the course of time as numbers change, as demographics change, you could conceivably be sued on multiple occasions,” she said.
During the hourslong meeting numerous residents spoke out against the proposed change, many blaming the state to make it easier to sue the cities and “sweeten the pot” for attorneys.
“For me the question is where do you draw the line. I don’t sit up there,” Murrieta resident and Business Consultant Kassen Klein told council. “But you represent me and you represent my fellow residents. Where are your convictions? Where are your uncompromising values, where do we draw that line? Have you positioned yourself to defend your vote, rather than fight? Fight for your principles, fight for what is right.”
Councilman Kelly Seyarto said what the city needed was the money to fight the potential lawsuit, something the city did not have.
“We don’t have that kind of money and we can’t risk that kind of money, but what we can do is take the time tht we do have to figure this thing out,” he said. “If you want to bring on a lawsuit tonight and say we are going to say ‘no,’ that is a big roll of the dice.”
Seyarto along with Ingram both said they would be willing to donate to a legal defense fund to help fight against the suit, should the city decide to fight it.
“We have 115,000 people in this city and we could potentially raise the kind of money we would need for a legal defense without hurting the people that we depend on for our services, without jeopardizing the safe community that we all strive for,” Seyarto said. “Do I want to fight? Yep, I sure do. This guy ticks me off more than anybody has in a long time.”
Seyarto said it was important to consider all options rather than take premature action.
“I think that is the responsible way to handle this,” he said.
Mayor Rick Gibbs said, “you can’t take a knife to a gunfight” and while he wanted to fight, right now the city didn’t have the money to do so.
“We don’t have any bullets,” he said. “If we don’t have those bullets then no matter how anyone feels, it won’t make any difference. What we need is money.”
The next public hearing regarding the issue will be held at the upcoming Murrieta City Council meeting June 6.