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District Voting Lawsuits Revisited: City Paid $600,000 to Avoid District Voting

| News | January 4, 2018

All Jim Soliz wanted was fairer representation for the city’s Latino voters. That’s why he signed on as plaintiff in three area lawsuits alleging California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) violations.

Looking back almost four years later, Soliz expressed satisfaction at the changes he helped bring. All of the school districts have changed from at-large voting to district voting; and although the city remains the lone district-voting holdout, a Latino has been elected and another was appointed.

“I’m very proud of what we did,” said Soliz, a 37-year Saugus resident. “We accomplished an awful lot.”

The CVRA, passed in 2001, expands on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for minority groups in California to prove that their votes are being diluted in elections. Soliz and Rosemarie Sanchez-Fraser were plaintiffs in suits against the city, the Saugus Union School District and College of the Canyons.

The attorney, Kevin Shenkman of the Malibu firm Shenkman & Hughes, also sued Sulphur Springs Union School District and the city of Palmdale, and threatened suits against three other school districts: Newhall, Castaic and William S. Hart.

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The CVRA, passed in 2001, expands on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for minority groups in California to prove that their votes are being diluted in elections. Soliz and Rosemarie Sanchez-Fraser were plaintiffs in suits against the city, the Saugus Union School District and College of the Canyons.

The attorney, Kevin Shenkman of the Malibu firm Shenkman & Hughes, also sued Sulphur Springs Union School District and the city of Palmdale, and threatened suits against three other school districts: Newhall, Castaic and William S. Hart.

In March 2014, the city settled for $600,000 – all of which went to attorneys; Soliz got nothing because the law requires civil rights plaintiffs to be monetarily harmed before receiving settlement money, Shenkman said.

“They don’t get paid,” Shenkman said. “I agree (that they should be paid). The law is not that way.”

Additionally, the city moved the election from April to November of even-numbered years and adapted a cumulative voting style in which voters could vote for more than one person. A judge subsequently struck down that provision.

“Our goal is to bring the elections into compliance and end minority-vote dilution,” Shenkman said.

Soliz first got involved because of an unrelated matter. In 2010, he heard about statements Councilmember Bob Kellar had made at an anti-immigration rally. The comment received nationwide attention.

“A moment ago, I mentioned what Teddy Roosevelt said, and he was right on: one flag, one language,” Kellar said (the video is on YouTube). “I brought that up and I read that … at one of our council meetings a couple of years ago. I said, ‘Folks, this is important.’ You know the only thing I heard back from a couple of people? ‘Bob, you sound like a racist.’ I said, ‘That’s good. If that’s what you think I am because I happen to believe in America, I’m a proud racist.’ ”

“That caught my eye,” Soliz said, “but what really caught my eye was the council didn’t call for his (removal or resignation), given his statement.”

Soliz said he began to wonder why the other four white and affluent council members didn’t sanction Kellar. His search sent him examining voting, and he found what he believed was voter suppression against Latinos.

He thought the easiest way to fix the problem was to move to district voting “that reflected the voters’ needs.” He started reading about the 2012 lawsuit three voters brought against Palmdale for alleged CVRA violations.

Soliz contacted Shenkman after hearing him speak in the area.

“Jim is a guy who tells you what he thinks, whether you like it or not,” Shenkman said. “Jim is a fighter. I guess that makes him a good plaintiff.”

Together with Rosemarie Sanchez-Fraser, Soliz sued the city in 2013, claiming the at-large election resulted in “vote dilution for the Latino residents and has denied them effective political participation in elections to the Santa Clarita City Council,” according to the complaint obtained by the Gazette following a public records request to the city.

At the time, the Latinos made up about 30 percent of the population, but had never had a Latino elected to the council. Michael Cruz had run in 2006, the complaint said, but was not elected. “That election, like other elections for Santa Clarita City Council, was racially polarized,” the complaint said. “The non-Latino electorate did not support Michael Cruz, for example, while he drew significant support from the Latino members of the electorate.”

“It seemed logical to me that it should be changed,” Soliz said.

All the school districts settled and went to district voting; College of the Canyons settled during the first day of trial. To avoid lawsuits, the Newhall, Castaic and William S. Hart districts voluntarily went to district voting.

“We saw what was going on. Everybody said you’re going to be next,” Hart district board member Steve Sturgeon said. “We preferred to stay at-large. We knew what other districts were spending. I heard the community college spent over $1 million in the settlement. The elementary (school) districts spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. We had no desire to spend that kind of money.”

Said Newhall board member Christy Smith: “We dodged a bullet.”

The city, however, decided to fight, and it appeared to Soliz that certain factions within the city council would rather have bankrupted the city than move to district voting.

“I can’t tell you who, because I wasn’t part of the (settlement) negotiations,” Soliz said. “I’m not willing to bankrupt the city. If you said, ‘Jim, you win it all or you go bankrupt,’ if it’s left up to me, I will be responsible for my behavior. But when you’re dealing with the public, it’s not just you. It’s the people.”

Kellar denied anybody was trying to bankrupt the city.

“We did our best to protect the city and protect the finances of the city,” he said. “We did about as well as we could for our citizens.”

Soliz said he thinks he knows why the city avoided district voting when the school districts didn’t.

“Schools are institutions there to impart our values and norms, our history, good and bad,” he said. “Those people are more involved with human institutions than the political institutions.”

The purpose of the city council, he said, is “not to govern, but to rule. ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ You really have to ask yourself, ‘Where am I? Am I in L.A. County?’ It’s kind of autocratic.”

 

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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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