City Council approves study of switch to voting districts

Murrieta City Council members listen to a resident during discussion of a proposed switch to council elections by district. Murrieta 24/7 ph...

Murrieta City Council members listen to a resident during discussion of a proposed switch to council elections by district.
Murrieta 24/7 photo: Doug Spoon

Murrieta City Council members on Monday began exploring the process of transitioning to a district-based city election system -- all the while criticizing the action they say is forcing their hand.

Monday's action, taken during a special 4 p.m. meeting of the council, was prompted by the threat of a lawsuit against the City, claiming that the current at-large voting system is discriminatory against minorities who run for election. The threat, made by civil rights attorney Kevin Shenkman in a letter to the City of Murrieta and several other California cities, maintains that minority areas of cities are not adequately represented in an at-large system, where voters from throughout the city may vote for any council candidate of their choice.

In a district voting system, the city would be geographically divided into areas -- either four or five. Voters would then be able to vote only for candidates living in their district -- not for anyone else on the ballot. Each district would have one representative on the council.

Council members heard testimony from several members of the public who say there are no clear racial or ethnic geographical divides within the city, making a switch to districts unnecessary and unfair. While council members agreed, they had to remind residents of the potentially high costs of fighting such a lawsuit, should Shenkman follow through with his threat, as he has successfully done in other California cities.

"I am perplexed," said Mayor Pro Tem Jonathan Ingram about the threat of a lawsuit. "This is the ultimate way the state takes away our local control. When I was elected, I had to work hard and be in all four corners of the city. It's our Constitutional right to stand up and say we won't stand for this."

The other three council members present at the meeting agreed (Alan Long was absent), with Kelly Seyarto calling the threat "extortion" and Mayor Rick Gibbs saying, "We're being screwed by the state of California." Even so, council members adopted by a 3-1 vote a Resolution of Intention to transition from at-large to district voting.

Why? Because by launching what amounts to a three-month evaluation process including four public hearings, adoption of the ROI buys them time to study their options, while satisfying the required response time to Shenkman's letter.

According to Christina Cameron, deputy city attorney, the City is guaranteed "safe harbor" protection from litigation during the public hearing and ordinance process of a proposed transition to district voting by Assembly Bill 350, passed last year. The League of California Cities spells out the protection of AB 350 on its website as follows:

"Under AB 350, prospective plaintiffs are required to send a written demand letter alleging that the local government has violated provisions of the CVRA (California Voting Rights Act). Upon receipt of the letter, a local government has an initial 45 days of safe harbor to assess their needs and make a determination if they wish to contest the alleged violation or convert to districts through the ordinance process. Should the city choose to convert to district through the ordinance process, the city is afforded an additional 90 days to comply before a lawsuit can be filed."

The issue was scheduled to be addressed during the May 1 City Council meeting but was tabled due to the lack of a quorum. A special meeting was called at the next available time to consider the matter before May 10, the end of the 45-day period following receipt of Shenkman's letter.

According to Cameron, the City Council could decide at a later date not to go through with the transition to district voting. As long as they take advantage of the safe harbor protection, however, a cap of financial liability for litigation would be set at $30,000.

That's the only reason, according to council members, they voted to approve the ROI rather than announce now that they would potentially fight a lawsuit filed by Shenkman -- who has not lost such a case against a California city. The City of Palmdale reportedly incurred $4.7 million in legal fees in a failed attempt to avoid such a transition in voting districts.

"The comments of the public today were very well spoken and right on point," Seyarto said. "We don't want this. The problem we have is determining, do we have the wherewithal to defend against this? How much would it take to fight this?

"This infuriates me to even be having a hearing because of this knucklehead. But we're stewards of your money, and we can't afford to spend $2 million losing this case. But we can continue the process, giving us time to get all the information we need."

One of the accusations in Shenkman's letter was that Harry Ramos, former council member and a Latino, had lost a bid for re-election in 2016 because he was denied the ability to represent his specific district -- boundaries for which haven't been drawn. With two council spots open in last November's at-large election, Ramos finished last among six candidates, receiving only 7.98 percent of the votes.

Both residents and council members were quick to point out, however, that Ramos had been removed from the mayor's position following allegations of sexual misconduct, and was suing the City -- events they believed were major factors in his low voter support.

"In my opinion, Mr. Ramos was not re-elected because of his poor performance, not because he's Latino," said resident Faye Wons.

Barbara Nugent expressed similar feelings.

"Our population is one of the most diverse of a city our size," she said. "We have minorities living in all corners of the city. There is no need for districts. With the at-large system, citizens from across the city participate in the entire process. That strengthens our spirit as we participate in voting."

The first of four public hearings on the proposed transition will take place at the next City Council meeting, scheduled for May 16.





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