Murrieta city council heard the third of four public hearings June 20 regarding a possible move to district-based elections.
Two possible draft maps, known as the “green” and “yellow” maps, were presented by Christina Cameron, who is a partner at city attorney Leslie Devaney’s law firm, and Douglas Johnson, who as president of National Demographics Corporation has drawn up districts for various local governments throughout California.
In March, the city of Murrieta received a letter from attorney Kevin Shenkman alleging the city was violating the California Voting Rights Act by electing its city council at-large. The only way for the city to avoid a lawsuit is to establish city council districts.
The council adopted a resolution to do just that May 8 by holding a series of public hearings on district elections. It has 90 days – until Aug. 6 – to officially adopt districts, if it chooses to do so. If not, it will remain open to a lawsuit.
The CVRA, first passed in 2001, is meant to protect minorities from having their interests overridden by the majority.
However, Johnson said there is no way to create a district with a majority Latino – or any other “protected class” – population.
“No surprise, there are not any large neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly a protected class of Latino, Asian-American or African-American,” Johnson said.
In both draft maps, councilman Randon Lane and Mayor Rick Gibbs will find themselves in the same district, while an area mostly south of Murrieta Hot Springs Road will be without an incumbent councilmember. However, both Gibbs and councilmember Alan Long will be termed out in 2018.
Three of the new districts would be up for election in 2018, and the remaining two will be up in 2020.
Councilmembers elected under the current system will keep their seats until their terms are up, unless they decide to run in an earlier district election.
The district lines will have to be redrawn after the 2020 census.
Murrieta councilmembers have made no secret of their distaste for changing to district elections.
“We don’t want this any more than any of you do,” Councilman Kelly Seyarto said at the June 6 council meeting after testimony from numerous city residents arguing against districts. “But we also have the additional responsibility of ensuring that we don’t go broke trying to do something that no other city seems to have been able to do.”
Though the council is moving along with the districting process, they requested the city attorney’s office reach out to cities that have received similar letters to ensure Murrieta has as much information about defensibility and legal strategies as possible.
Cameron said June 20 that she contacted five cities and had detailed discussions with the city attorneys of Rancho Cucamonga and Huntington Beach.
Both situations, it turns out, are different from Murrieta’s.
Rancho Cucamonga sent the decision to the voters in the 2016 general election, but was sued anyway. The city voted to create four council districts and elect its mayor at-large; the legal fight is now over whether the city can keep its citywide mayor.
The city was sued before a “safe harbor” amendment to the CVRA went into effect in January establishing steps that must be taken before a lawsuit can take place.
The city attorney of Huntington Beach said in a May letter that the city is prepared to “vigorously defend” against any legal action by Shenkman. However, the seaside town is in a unique position to defend against a lawsuit, Cameron said, because its city charter explicitly requires a seven-member council to be elected at-large, and any change must go to the voters.
Murrieta, a general law city, does not have a city charter, and there are no cities similar to Murrieta attempting to fight a CVRA suit.
“Unfortunately, we find that besides Huntington Beach, there simply isn’t any other city that, at least in a post-safe harbor environment, has elected to try to fight this issue,” Cameron said.
No cities have yet fought a suit over district elections from Shenkman and won, either. The risks are high for cities that elect not to acquiesce to his demands, as cities sued under the CVRA are required to pay their plaintiff’s legal fees if found in violation. The city of Palmdale was forced to cough up over $4 million after it lost such a suit.
Long, who is himself partially of Hispanic descent, said it appears by moving to districts, the city will, at best, be doing little to empower minorities. At worst, it will be disenfranchising minority voters, he said.
“(Minorities) are scattered throughout our city, which is really the model for everyone to follow, by the way,” Long said. “If we district the way we are, we reduce the percentage of Latinos in each district. Don’t we dilute their vote by doing so?”
Though Johnson clarified that the minority population will be slightly increased in some districts and slightly decreased in others, Cameron affirmed the sentiment of Long’s statement, saying it’s possible.
“Yes, the results of the remedy prescribed to avoid a CVRA challenge may or may not exacerbate or aid the voting power of any particular racial minority that we may be talking about,” Cameron said.
Long also was concerned that one map in particular lumps together the city’s rural residential areas in the same districts as tract homes.
Johnson explained that this was actually the goal on one of the maps, while the other made an attempt to divide suburban development and rural areas.
“There isn’t a right answer to this, but the question is, does it make sense to have councilmembers who focus mainly on the issues below Adams and the issues up in the hills?” Johnson asked. “Or is it better to have each councilmember represent pieces of both, so that all the councilmembers are wrestling with both types of issues?”
Lane, too, expressed, frustration at the CVRA’s “one size fits all” approach.
“The state Legislature, in my opinion, is not known for its wisdom in making good law,” he said. “They’re looking at it from, in order to fix the problem they see, you have to move to districting. They don’t care what the end result is, because they believe that that fixes the problem.”
Cameron responded to Lane’s statement with an old adage: “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.”
For now, though, it seems the city will be reluctantly moving ahead with the districting process.
“This is my opinion – we are not going to spend millions of dollars of the people’s money tilting in a limbo when the legislature and (former Gov. Gray) Davis signed into effect a law that really doesn’t care what you think,” Gibbs said.