The Murrieta City Council approved a switch to district council elections, July 18. The council voted 3 to 1 to approve the measure, with Mayor Pro Tem Jonathan Ingram dissenting and Councilman Randon Lane absent due to surgery.
“I appreciate the amount of effort you’ve put forth on this,” Ingram said to the attorney and demographer who prepared the draft maps for the council. “With all due respect, I think all three of these maps are horrible. They are doing exactly what I never wanted to happen in my great city.”
The two presenters were Christina Cameron, who along with city attorney Leslie Devaney is a partner at Devaney, Pete, Morris & Cameron, and Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation. Johnson has drafted council district maps for numerous California cities.
The council selected the “yellow” draft map for implementation, one of the two draft maps originally presented at the June 20 council meeting. A “teal” map was also added for consideration at the July 18 meeting in response to the councilmembers’ earlier wishes to create a couple of mostly rural districts, but the council quickly decided the map did not make sense.
The idea to move to districts is a decision with which Ingram said he’ll never agree.
“I will be kicking and fighting over this until the day I die because I think it’s a huge mistake,” he said.
The change to districts means that Murrieta city councilmembers will each be elected from one of five districts. To align the current election schedule with the implementation of districts, the council voted to have districts 1, 2 and 5 up for election in 2018, when Ingram, Councilman Alan Long and Mayor Rick Gibbs will see their terms expire, and 3 and 4 in 2020, when Lane and Councilman Kelly Seyarto will be up for re-election.
Ingram’s fellow councilmembers agreed with his sentiment, but all felt the risk of losing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over districts would was far too big a chance to take.
“This is something we’ve said from day one, we are against having to do, having it forced down our throats,” Seyarto said.
“The law is written in such a way that there is very little proof that needs to take place for a lawsuit to be successful,” Long said. “And if we don’t abide by the law, if we don’t do this tonight, then we will be on the hook for millions of dollars and likely lose this lawsuit in California. And I’m not prepared to do that. I don’t like this, but I’m not going to put our citizens and our city in financial jeopardy.”
The law he is referring to is the California Voting Rights Act. In March, the city received a letter from attorney Kevin Shenkman alleging the city was disenfranchising minority voters and violating the CVRA by electing its council at-large. The only way for the city to avoid a lawsuit from Shenkman under the CVRA is to move to districts.
Shenkman said there is clear racially polarized voting happening in Murrieta.
Long and other councilmembers have said in the past that the claims of disenfranchisement are dubious, and note that minorities are spread across the city in such a way that it is impossible to create a majority-minority council district.
No city has won a lawsuit under the CVRA, and the first city to receive a letter from Shenkman – the city of Palmdale – was on the hook for over $4 million after it tried to put up a fight.
“It’s in the financial best interest of the city, for the time being, to move to districts,” Long said. “If we do anything else tonight, it will cost us dearly, financially.”
Seyarto said even while acquiescing to Shenkman’s demands for now, Murrieta can be part of an effort to change law.
“While I was up north, I had a chat with the California League of Cities – because there are a lot of people who are up in arms about this, but nobody talks about how we’re going to fix it,” Seyarto said.
With the help of other cities, Seyarto said he thinks it’s possible to create a bipartisan effort to change the CVRA, as he said it’s clear the law, by dividing minority voters across districts, does the opposite of what it is intended to do.
Cameron said because the council has previously expressed interest in being able to change back to at-large voting in the event the CVRA is changed or invalidated, the draft ordinance was changed to add a new section to the city municipal code “so that we would not intermingle the changes that are going on with existing code sections, making it easy to make the switch back if that’s what occurs.”