Is District Voting for City Council Inevitable?

| News | February 20, 2020

Local resident Mark White is convinced more people favor breaking the city council into districts than the current councilmembers want to acknowledge. As it stands, the city has perhaps stubbornly held onto at-large elections when every other local entity has gone to districts. Now that the city again faces a lawsuit, White sounds wistful.

“The city council refused to put (discussing district voting) as an agenda item. It’s unfortunate,” White lamented. “It seems to me there’s exposure and they should have done something to avoid a second threat to a second lawsuit.”

This threat came in the form of a letter from Walnut Creek, California-based attorney Scott Rafferty representing a group called Neighborhood Elections Now that claims at-large elections have hurt Latino voters, which violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Rafferty knows who exactly is in this group, but he isn’t naming names until an actual suit is filed. The letter only says it comprises “a variety of races and ethnicities.” The letter discusses only district voting. It does not address directly electing a mayor.

Mayor Cameron Smyth and Councilmember Marsha McLean declined comment, although Smyth repeated his commitment to at least discussing it. McLean previously said she was wary about another lawsuit.

“The issue of districts has been brought up before, and I have served in both at-large and district circumstances,” Smyth said, referring to his holding city council and Assembly posts. “Regardless of the system in place, I’m going to serve the people of Santa Clarita to the best of my abilities.”


People who have called for district voting were pleased.

“It’s way past time,” said Diane Trautman, a Saugus resident who ran for council three times, “I’m happy to see this, and I hope the city responds as they should.”

Those opposed expressed their displeasure.

“I’m disappointed and disgusted that this once again is coming to the city of Santa Clarita,” Councilmember Bob Kellar said. “The city has done remarkably well with this existing form of government.”

The city was previously sued in 2013 by Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman representing local residents Jim Soliz and Rosemarie Sanchez-Fraser. As part of the settlement, council elections were moved to November from April, but at-large voting remained.

Like Shenkman, who sued many districts, Rafferty has done this before. In 2018, he sued the West Contra Costa County Unified School District on behalf of a Latina client, forcing the district to divide into five districts starting with the 2020 election.

Shenkman once told the Gazette the city would be sued again. Rafferty summed up the reasons why he’s threatening: Santa Clarita is a large city, it’s expensive to mount an effective campaign, incumbents have been entrenched for a long time and four of them live close to each other, making it likely 80 percent of the population won’t randomly run into any of them in public.

“It’s not racially representative. It’s not geographically representative, and it makes government more removed from each neighborhood,” Rafferty said. He wrote, “The prospective plaintiffs do not seek a Latino majority district. They seek only an opportunity to influence the outcome of the election that is equal to that enjoyed by voters who are white and not Latino.”

What The Letter Says:
Rafferty sent the city a 13-page letter, a copy of which the Gazette procured via public-records request. In it, he details a system hell-bent on maintaining the status quo at the expense of growing non-white populations.

Rafferty wrote that Latinos make up 35 percent of the population and 21 percent of eligible voters, while Asians make up 11 percent of eligible voters and African Americans five percent. Whites are now the minority among the entire population, but still account for 57 percent of eligible voters. He also said at-large voting has helped Laurene Weste stay on the council since 1998, Kellar since 2000 and McLean since 2002, although Kellar is retiring. Smyth was first elected in 2000 and served until leaving for the Assembly in 2006. He ran again in 2016 and won.

All four are white.

“The illegal at-large system has entrenched incumbents who were elected 20 years ago when Santa Clarita was 80 percent white and only 20 percent Latino,” Rafferty wrote. “Today, four out of five council members (1) are septuagenarians, (2) have served for 20 years, (3) are Republicans in a majority Democratic city, and (4) live within a one-mile radius of each other. This is not the result of a democratic process.”

Rafferty’s next point: No one has ever been elected by a majority.

From 1987 until now, candidates win election with small percentages. In 1987, those elected received between eight percent (Carl Boyer) and 12 percent (Howard “Buck” McKeon). Rarely does anyone receive at least 20 percent of the vote; it’s only happened in six out of 16 elections.

Smyth came closest to a majority with 40 percent in 2004, and he’s the only person to ever receive more than a third of the vote, although Kellar came close with 32 percent in 2004.

Smyth said Monday that the 2004 election was unique in that it had just three candidates (Henry Schultz was the other, and he got 28 percent, which would have been enough in any other election). Contrast that with the last two elections, in which 11 people vied for two spots in 2016 and 15 people ran for three seats in 2018.

One of those three seats went to Bill Miranda, the one nonwhite member and only one of two nonwhites to ever be elected, although he first was appointed. Rafferty argues that Miranda’s presence does not mean Latino votes are being equally valued because, he wrote, “Mr. Miranda is not the Latino candidate of choice,” having received only about four percent of his votes from Latinos.

In fact, until 2014, Michael Cruz was the only Latino candidate who won even five percent of the vote. Miranda won 11 percent in 2018 and Dante Acosta won 12 percent of the total vote in 2014, but Rafferty wrote that Acosta didn’t even carry the Latino vote; Alan Ferdman did (Ferdman, who lost to Acosta by 104 votes, said he didn’t know).

“Member Bill Miranda did not seek the support of the Latino community when the Council appointed him in 2017 and he did not receive it when he ran for election in 2018,” Rafferty wrote. “Tellingly, neither his campaign website nor his Voters’ Edge profile claims a single endorsement from any Latino organization or individual leader other than former Santa Clarita resident Dante Acosta.” Also, when Miranda applied for appointment, none of his three letters of recommendation came from any Latino leaders or organizations.

Miranda did not return numerous calls for comment.

Rafferty also wrote, “In a city that has grown to encompass 66 square miles, four council members now live within a one-mile radius.” Smyth, Weste and McLean live in Newhall. Miranda lives in Valencia, close to the Newhall line. Kellar lives in Canyon Country.

“The illegal method of election has protected those choices from the effects of annexation, demographic change and political realignment,” Rafferty wrote. “That is why the incumbents spent $1.2 million of public monies to settle the Soliz litigation on terms that allowed at least two of their members (Weste and McLean) to survive, when district elections would have doomed them.”

What People Are Saying:

Predictably, no one who has stated a view in the past has changed opinions. Many say districts lead to greater number of participants; others say it leads to fiefdoms.

Trautman and Ferdman count themselves in the more-will-get-involved camp. “If people look at the benefits, it will allow more people to participate because they’ll feel there is an opportunity for their voices to be heard,” Trautman said. Ferdman, a Canyon Country resident who ran for council in 2014 and 2016 but didn’t in 2018 because he found it too expensive, thinks district voting will make campaigns more affordable.

Kellar is in the fiefdom camp, pointing to the Los Angeles City Council, which is divided into 12 districts. “Everybody’s fighting for their little piece of the pie,” he said, “and it gets in the way of the responsibility of working together on the myriad of issues a city has to deal with.”

Two city council candidates have come down on opposite sides of the issues. Ken Dean, who has run seven previous times, favors the move and thinks having so many councilmembers living so close to each other isn’t fair to the people.

He also rejects the fiefdom argument. “If that were a big problem, that’d be a problem with the L.A City Council, the Burbank City Council and state government,” he said. “Look at (Sen.) Scott Wilk. He’s concerned about the district, but he’s also concerned about the state of California.”

Jason Gibbs, who ran in 2018, texted his opposition — “District elections end up putting neighborhoods against each other,” Gibbs wrote. “I’m running for council to solve problems for the entire city. While I oppose the lawsuit and the move to districts, I know whether it is in a district election or citywide I look forward to engaging with residents and solving problems for our entire city.”

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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.

One Response to “Is District Voting for City Council Inevitable?”

  1. Currently 4 of the 5 city council members live in Newhall, or close by.The hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the city on the Newhall Library, Lamelle theaters, parking structure, and all the rest of the development is a benefit only to these incumbants and their friends.

    The city council election is a fraud!. As mentioned the winning incumbents, in a field of more than a dozen, get less than 15% of the vote. Only their friends.
    85% of the people did not vote for them.

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