In May 2020, the Santa Clarita City Council, under pressure from a lawyer to move from at-large to district elections, decided that because of COVID-19, it would not adopt a schedule to move in time for the November general election, even though it already had voted to schedule district elections.
The lawyer called the decision “comically irresponsible” and implied suing was possible.
Instead, nothing happened. The city held another at-large election, as it has every single time.
But the threat of legal action hasn’t gone away. That same attorney, who represents unnamed Latino clients, told The Proclaimer he still demands the city move to district elections by 2022.
Whether the city will comply is unknown. A spokesperson responded by referring back to the May council meeting. Mayor Bill Miranda didn’t respond to seven interview requests but said in a College of the Canyons-sponsored conversation he thinks the city is being “forced” into it. The council member who was mayor last year, Cameron Smythe, reiterated the city will make the move.
Others aren’t so sure.
“They can have no excuse,” said Diane Trautman, who sits on a local districting committee and has said she would run for a council district. “For a city council to say, ‘Conduct meetings in person,’ they can conduct (city council) meetings in person. They can conduct planning commission meetings in person, but they can’t do this?
“They won’t be able to get away with it much longer.”
We’ve been here before
When voting for cityhood back in 1987, voters rejected electing its council members by district, 57% to 43%. The city always has had the right to place the matter before the voters again but never has, perhaps resulting in a lawsuit and the current threat of another one.
In March 2014, the city settled a lawsuit brought the year before by a Malibu lawyer on behalf of two Latino residents who claimed at-large voting diluted their votes under the California Voting Rights Act, or CVRA, making it impossible “to elect candidates of their choice or influence council elections,” according to the council minutes on March 11, 2014.
The settlement cost the city $600,000 — none of which went to the plaintiffs because the law requires them to be monetarily harmed — and it agreed to move the election from April to November and adopt cumulative voting, which allows voters to cast more than one vote per candidate. But a judge later struck down the cumulative-voting component, leaving the city with at-large elections every even-numbered year.
At that point, Latinos made up about 30% of the population but had never had a Latino elected to the council. Michael Cruz ran in 2006 but finished eighth out of 11 candidates with just 1.45% of the vote.
Dante Acosta was elected in 2014. Bill Miranda was appointed early in 2017 and was subsequently elected to his own term in 2018.
That didn’t stop Walnut Creek attorney Scott Rafferty, representing a group called Neighborhood Elections Now, from sending the city a demand letter in February 2020 threatening a lawsuit if the city didn’t move to district elections.
Rafferty’s 13-page letter detailed a system hell-bent on maintaining the status quo at the expense of growing non-white populations.
Rafferty wrote that Latinos now make up 35% of the population and 21% of eligible voters, while Asians make up 11% of eligible voters and African Americans 5%. Whites are now the minority among the entire population but still account for 57% of eligible voters, he wrote.
He also said at-large voting has helped Laurene Weste stay on the council since 1998, Bob Kellar for 20 years and Marsha McLean since 2002. Cameron Smyth was first elected in 2000 and served until leaving for the Assembly in 2006. He ran again in 2016 and 2020 and won each time.
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.
A year ago, he wrote that four of the five council members were septuagenarians, had served for at least 20 years, were Republicans in a majority Democratic city, and lived within a one-mile radius of each other. The only change now is that there are three septuagenarians, Jason Gibbs having replaced Kellar on the council last year.
Smyth, Weste and McLean live in Newhall. Miranda lives in Valencia, close to the Newhall line. Gibbs lives in Saugus.
Rafferty’s next point: No one has ever been elected by a majority.
In 1987, the first council elected received between 8% (Carl Boyer) and 12% (Howard “Buck” McKeon). Rarely does anyone receive at least 20% of the vote; it’s only happened in seven out of 17 elections.
Smyth came closest to a majority with 46.8% in 2020 and 40% in 2004. He remains the only person to ever receive more than a third of the vote, although Kellar came close with 32% in 2004.
Acosta won 12% in 2014, but Rafferty wrote that Acosta lost the Latino vote to Alan Ferdman, who is white.
Rafferty argued 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 4% of his votes from Latinos. Miranda won 11% of the total vote in 2018.
“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 Voter’s’Edge profile claim 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, according to city documents.
Rafferty’s letter forced the council to approve moving to district voting in time for the November elections, which it did by a 3-2 vote. Then COVID-19 hit. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that banned all large gatherings and public meetings. The problem was that the law requires a city to hold five pubic meetings in 90 days and submit an approved district map to the county by June 30 before it can move the district elections. Newsom’s order came one day after the council voted, so City Attorney Joe Montes told the council it still had 89 days to complete the five meetings.
While the council did nothing, Rafferty couldn’t have done much because COVID closed the courts. In the meantime, Rafferty engaged Montes in settlement talks that included deferring district voting until 2022 provided an independent districting commission is put in place.
Rafferty said Montes was “honest and straightforward.” But last May, the council voted to not adopt a schedule, which made clear its intentions to hold at-large elections. Rafferty called the decision “comically irresponsible. This is going to backfire on them. They know they can’t pay me $400,000 to go away like last time. I’m not going away. I’m not giving up.”
Other lawsuits could influence
And he hasn’t; he’s biding his time with another case that he believes is stronger than the one he might file against Santa Clarita. That isn’t to say that he thinks his chances against the city are bad. It’s that he thinks he will win the other case, which will help him against Santa Clarita.
That case involves the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County. According to a summary on the website Social Justice Sacramento written by the lead plaintiff, at-large elections have led to most of the school board living in one concentrated, affluent area. Two schools without a representative living in their areas are among the lowest-performing schools in the district. The suit seeks to increase the school board from five to seven members and have as many districts.
The lead plaintiff is Magali Kincaid, who ran for school board and finished fourth of four candidates for two seats, with 21% percent of the vote but only 5.2% away from the candidate who finished second. She claims that it’s too expensive to mount a successful campaign, resulting in well-connected, deep-pocketed and well-funded candidates being elected.
Rafferty filed the case in October on behalf of six plaintiffs — one of which is named Neighborhood Elections Now, the same name of a group he’s representing locally. In the most recent hearing, March 22, a judge rejected the district’s motion to dismiss.
Should Rafferty win this case, it’s not a given that Santa Clarita would just roll over. That is because of another case, this one involving the city of Santa Monica. In 2016, it was sued under the CVRA amid claims that Latino votes were being diluted, and a judge ruled that the city had to move to district elections. But instead, Santa Monica appealed and the Court of Appeal reversed the lower-court decision, saying that the plaintiffs must provide evidence that district voting would lead to Latinos being elected. The plaintiffs appealed to the California Supreme Court, which agreed in December to hear the case.
What will the city do?
Privately, people believe the city is in no hurry to move to district elections, and they point to the city’s refusal to ever place the matter before the voters.
Former Councilmember TimBen Boydston said at-large elections work fine when a city is small, but Santa Clarita is too large now. To illustrate, he asked why there’s no public library in Saugus.
“Newhall has a library. Canyon Country has a library. Valencia has a library,” Boydston said. “Saugus does not. Why not? There (was) no person on the council.”
Smyth told The Proclaimer the city remains committed to moving to district elections. Beside the vote last year, the city paid $60,000 to National Demographics Corporation (NDC) to draw district maps. The Glendale-based firm previously drew maps for three area elementary school districts and the water board.
“We made a good-faith public effort to establish the districts,” Smyth said. “It would have been difficult to litigate against the city, given the pandemic and the limitations (the state put up). The courts were closed, too.”
Not everyone believes the city tried as hard as it could. Jonathan Ahmadi, who heads the Santa Clarita Independent Districting Committee, said the city could have been conducting online meetings all this time.
“We’ve all had to figure out how to work and go about our lives in the pandemic,” Ahmadi said. “The city didn’t stop doing business. They found ways to have public involvement. If not for this executive order, the city would have no excuse.”
Miranda said during the recent COC-sponsored Q&A that he hasn’t thought about district elections since the pandemic.
“The last time we had the discussion, the thinking was that we didn’t really want to do it, but we felt like we were being forced to do it, and I’m not quite sure where that discussion is,” Miranda said. “As soon as we open up, that’ll probably be one of the first items on the agenda.”
Boydston said he believes COVID has been a convenient excuse “not to do the will of the people. I hope the court will force them to move forward. I am still hopeful they will create districts, the city is so big. It takes time to look after your constituents. It helps if you have your council member in your district.”
What will the districts look like?
It’s impossible to know how the districts will look because they have to be drawn based on the 2020 Census, and COVID has caused the release to be delayed from March 31 to Sept. 30, the U.S. Census Bureau said, along with the announcement that California is losing one congressional seat.
Ahmadi’s group drew up a map in which parts of Newhall and Canyon Country are a majority-Latino district. Rafferty said he will insist there is at least one such district. NDC hasn’t yet submitted any maps to the city, but it has had past 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 signed off on a different map that was used in 2020, the Richmond Standard reported.
Also, a judge found the Martinez City Council map NDC drew 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 Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman – who successfully sued Santa Clarita in 2014 – appealed. He didn’t, but the CBS-TV affiliate in San Francisco reported in January that Martinez has begun the process of redrawing the district maps for 2022.
Last year, 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.”
The California primary election is June 7, 2022. But because city council elections have no primary, Santa Clarita conceivably has until the end of that month to complete the process — that is, hold the necessary public meetings, approve the district map and submit it and all necessary paperwork to the county registrar-recorder in time for the Nov. 8, 2022 election.
All sides are optimistic it can and will be done. Yet Trautman issued a warning.
“It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when,” she said. “The clock is ticking for the city. I see the (governor’s executive) order being lifted. … It’s going to change. It’s inevitable.”