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District Voting: The People Could Force the Issue

| City Council, News | September 6, 2018

When Mark White ran for city council in 2016, changing to district elections instead of at-large voting was one of his platform points. Although he’s not running this time, he still feels the city would be better served if there were elected representatives from various communities.

“We shouldn’t be a city where one half of one percent gets elected and decides who runs things,” he said. “District elections will make it harder for them to decide.”

Santa Clarita is one of the largest cities that has not moved to district voting, even though attempts have been made. Most famous was the lawsuit the city settled in 2014 after two Latino plaintiffs claimed they and their fellow Latinos’ votes were diluted under the California Voting Rights Act. The CVRA, which expands on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, has been widely used to compel cities, school districts, water boards and the like to move to district voting. But the city didn’t, instead moving the election to November from April and going to cumulative voting, which a judge threw out.

White fears another lawsuit – and the settlement that taxpayers would foot – is coming.
“It’s inevitable,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if a lawsuit happened right after the election, even if (current councilmember) Bill Miranda gets elected.”

However, White is not actively looking for a plaintiff to sue, nor is he personally planning to sue, which wouldn’t work because the CVRA is used to prove minority groups have their votes diluted.

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A lawsuit isn’t the only way the city would be forced to move to district voting. Two other ways exist: the council places the matter on the ballot or an initiative earns enough signatures to qualify for a vote.

Since three current councilmembers, Bob Kellar, Marsha McLean and Laurene Weste, oppose moving to district voting, the only way the council will put the matter to the people is if candidates who favor it are elected (McLean and Weste are running for re-election in November).

The other two councilmembers, Miranda and Cameron Smyth, are open to discussing it, although Miranda said in a text he wants “input from the public before deciding whether to introduce (the) measure to the council. The input needs to be a large sample.”

Candidates on the record of either favoring district voting or letting the people decide include Logan Smith, Diane Trautman, Brett Haddock (“We desperately need districts,” he said) and TimBen Boydston. Smith even went as far as calling for seven districts and directly electing the mayor, and Boydston said he would ask to place the matter on the council agenda during the very first meeting after he’s sworn in.

Common reasons given for making the move include spending less money to get elected and that the city is too large and too many people don’t feel like they are being heard.

“It’s time for our community to move in that direction,” Trautman said. “I want people to feel they are having a voice in their governance. This is something we (should discuss) to understand what it entails, what it involves, what the repercussions would be.”

Another possibility is the initiative process, which Haddock said he would explore if he were not elected. The state Election Code spells out the process for how a municipal initiative (as opposed to a state ballot proposition) could qualify for a ballot. Basically, proponents must file intent to circulate a petition, the initiative’s text and any other written statement or purpose (500 words maximum) to the city clerk, plus pay a maximum $200 filing fee. The same information also has to be published in a local newspaper.

Then the proponents have 180 days to collect enough signatures (10 percent of the city’s registered voters for a regular election, 15 percent for a special election) to qualify. This is where it gets expensive. Haddock and community activist Alan Ferdman estimated it would cost $100,000 to successfully qualify for a ballot, which was the cost to defeat Measure S. Most of those costs would be from hiring paid signature gatherers and advertising.

“With 30 to 40 people, it could be done,” Ferdman said, “but it would require a large amount of dedicated individuals that would be willing to spend three months or however long.”

Right now, the initiative process seems a real long shot. White said he hadn’t even thought about it, Trautman would be willing to work on it but not take the lead, and Haddock might take the lead but is worried about the cost. Smyth said he wouldn’t sign the petition.

Boydston also questioned whether district voting is as important to others as it is to White and Haddock, who put district voting among his top five priorities.

“I don’t see the issue, like many city-level issues, as being important enough to enough people,” Boydston said. “The population, as a whole, doesn’t have enough time to follow the arguments.”

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About Lee Barnathan

Lee Barnathan has been a writer and editor since 1990. His articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. His new book "If You Experience Death, Please Call and Other Fatal Mistakes We Make With Language," a humorous look at the ways people misuse English, is available on Amazon or at his website, www.leebarnathan.com. He is hired by people all over the country to help them refine the message or story they wish to share with their target audience or demographic.

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