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District voting; It’s Complicated

| News | March 26, 2020

Ken Dean has been clamoring for district elections for at least two years. He’s going to get it in November because the city council has been forced to move that way. But will he even have a district to run in?

“I would be concerned,” Dean said. “That would not make me too happy.”

And yet it’s entirely possible because no one knows what the city council districts will look like. It is altogether possible that Mayor Cameron Smyth won’t have a district to run in. Neither might Chris Werthe, Jason Gibbs or anyone else who has declared their candidacies. If they don’t live in one of the two districts up for election in November, they’re out of luck.

It’s also possible that people such as Alan Ferdman, TimBen Boydston and Diane Trautman might join the race if the districts are drawn into where they live. And it’s possible that districts will be drawn with more than one incumbent in it. Nobody knows – yet.

But Scott Rafferty, the Northern California attorney representing a local group called Neighborhood Elections Now that brought the city to this point, said the goal is clear.

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“Our objective is to empower neighborhoods and large swaths of city that have never been represented on the council,” he said. “You’re going to have competitive elections, which you’ve never had in Santa Clarita. Who are competitive elections good for? Voters. All voters. Who doesn’t like district elections? Incumbents, special interests and supporters of those incumbents who are afraid they’ll lose.”

Possible districts
It’s not known how the districts will look, but Rafferty is pretty certain Newhall, Valencia, Saugus, and Canyon Country won’t be their own districts. There might be more than five districts – Bill Miranda suggested seven.

One reason is that the population isn’t evenly spread. Another is geography: There’s a lot of open space. A third is the California Voting Rights Act, which requires a protected minority class (in this case: Latino) to have its votes counted evenly against the rest of the population. It doesn’t mean a Latino has to be elected to the council – Miranda’s appointment and subsequent election did not prevent this move to districts from happening.

“They cannot look like a salamander and not look like a national district for Congress people, which is unbelievably disingenuous,” Boydston said.

Rafferty said his unnamed client would be happy with “one good minority district,” and he is pushing for that to be in Canyon Country. He even has basic boundary lines in mind: Sierra Highway and points east down to the Santa Clara River and west to Camp Plenty Road. If that becomes a district, Canyon Country residents Dean and Boydston couldn’t run but Ferdman could, and he said his chances of entering the race would be “a good possibility. I’d have to talk the wife into it.”

But draw the district a little more south and Dean and Boydston could run (Boydston told the Gazette that running was “a definite possibility”). In that case, Ferdman said he would defer to Boydston and not run.

Beside Canyon Country, Latinos are heavily represented in Newhall, but Rafferty said he doesn’t think Newhall is large enough to be its own district.

Then there’s the complication of having four councilmembers living so close to each other. Smyth, Laurene Weste and Marsha McLean live in Newhall, Miranda just over the line in Valencia. Rafferty fully expects at least one district will be drawn with more than one incumbent there.

Here’s where it gets confusing. Assuming Smyth lives in the district once it’s drawn, he could run for election, but so could Weste, McLean or Miranda if they’re also residents of that district – even though none of their terms expire until 2022. If that happens and Smyth wins, he becomes the district councilmember and the loser(s) would serve out their term(s) and leave the council but could run against Smyth in 2024. Weste said she was concerned only with the current public health crisis and abruptly hung up.

McLean also said her focus is on the virus, but then she said, “I believe that when the approximately 225,000 residents find out they will be able to vote for only one of us to represent the entire city, they’re going to be extremely upset.”

If the incumbent beat Smyth, that incumbent would be the district councilmember and serve a four-year term starting in 2020. Smyth would leave the council, creating a vacancy that would have to be filled by special election or appointment to complete the two years of the incumbent’s original term. Rafferty said in that case, it’s very likely he would haul the city into court and allege a CVRA violation. If the council appointed Smyth, he definitely would.

Another possibility: Districts could be drawn now but only two would be contested in November. The others would be vacant until 2022 while Miranda, Weste and McLean finish their at-large terms. But there’s one more complication: the census. Once it’s complete, districts might have to be redrawn depending on what the census reveals. If the districts drawn then don’t include an incumbent, nothing would stop that incumbent from moving into a new district to run, although Weste has previously said this is her last term.

Rafferty presented a nightmare scenario: No district is drawn to include Newhall in 2020. His rationalization for that is there are three Newhall-based councilmembers, making it necessary to have representation elsewhere, such as in Saugus and Canyon Country. If that were to happen, Smyth would leave the council in 2020 but could run in 2022 once a district is drawn where he lives.

A Saugus district would be good news for Gibbs and Trautman, who live there. “I have dreamed of running for city council,” Trautman said.

Another problem
Then there is the demographer, National Demographics Corporation. The council decided last week to award a $60,000 contract to the firm to draw the maps based on its having drawn maps for three area elementary school districts and the water board.

Rafferty said he is familiar with the Glendale-based firm. But NDC has had maps rejected and questioned. Contra Costa County rejected NDC’s map in 2018, the East Bay Times reported, out of fears wealthier candidates would have more money to spend than working-class candidates. A judge earlier this month signed off on a different map that will be used in 2020, the Richmond Standard reported.

Also, a judge found the Martinez City Council map was gerrymandered: It was drawn in such a way that four incumbents – including two who live on the same street – were in different districts, according to NBC Bay Area. The judge didn’t force the city to redraw it but warned it had better get ready to redraw if attorney Kevin Shenkman – who successfully sued Santa Clarita in 2014 – appeals.

Smyth and Miranda said they were unaware of these incidents but were unconcerned.

“I’m sure every demographer has submitted maps that have been challenged and rejected,” Smyth said. “Not all have a perfect record.”

A call for transparency
The process is long, but the time to do it all is short. Because the council announced its intent to move to district elections for November (by a 4-0 vote; Bob Kellar was absent due to miscommunication, he said), it has until June 17 to complete the process, which includes five public hearings, making mapping tools available to the public in case people want to submit their own maps, posting the proposed maps, selecting the map and adopting an ordinance that makes district elections official with the chosen map.

Complicating matters is the coronavirus and the state’s orders to stay at home. The city has canceled all meetings until April 20 and might extend that to May 5. Rafferty has not wavered in his desire to get this done now and promises to go to court if the process is not completed by June 17. As it stands, if the city completes it, Rafferty would receive $30,000 and no suit would be filed.

Trautman and Boydston called for complete transparency, something Smyth and Miranda also promised and Rafferty said he would monitor. Miranda said he expects NDC to take public input into account when drawing the maps. He also said there would be a website the public can access to see the maps and then give comment.

“There are so many possibilities. That’s why there’s a demographer to weed out the impossibilities,” he said. “We’re going to err on the side of caution and not leave ourselves open to another lawsuit.”

But Trautman expressed concern that the compressed time will make completion more difficult.

“You need to take into account people that are not technically savvy,” she said. “I’m worried. They (city) need to do outreach to communities that don’t participate. They need to listen to the public instead of the handful of people they normally reach out to.”

Regardless of how the process eventually plays out and how the map will eventually look, Dean knows one thing.

“It’s going to be interesting,” he said.

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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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