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|November 20, 2017 Study Session||PowerPoint||PowerPoint||Watch Live|
|December 4, 2017 City Council Meeting, 7 p.m.|
Staff report for December 4, 2017
Consideration of transition from at-large elections to district-based elections
Receive public comments and discuss changing the City’s elections from an at-large system to a district-based system.
In 2002, the Legislature enacted the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) (Elec. Code §§14025 – 14032), which prohibits California public agencies from imposing or applying an at-large election method “that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.” (Elec. Code §14027) A protected class is defined by the CVRA as “a class of voters who are members of a race, color, or language minority group, as this class is referenced and defined in the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
The CVRA defines an at-large method of election to include the election method used by the City of San Rafael, in which the voters of the entire City elect all the members of the City Council. In a lawsuit brought pursuant to the CVRA, a plaintiff who establishes a history of “racially polarized voting” under a city’s at-large election system can require a city to change to a district-based election system.
Since 2015, the City’s Latino Civic Leadership Initiative Group has been working to increase minority representation on San Rafael’s boards, commissions and ultimately the City Council, and the City is committed to working collaboratively with all of its residents to address any voting or representation concerns. Despite this work, on November 20, 2017 the City received a letter from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman urging the City to change its at-large voting system to a district-based voting system, asserting that “San Rafael’s at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a ‘protected class’) - to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of San Rafael’s council elections.”
According to the CVRA, receipt of this letter starts a 45-day timeline for the City “to pass a resolution outlining its intention to transition from at-large to district-based elections, specific steps it will undertake to facilitate this transition, and an estimated time frame for doing so.” (Elec. Code §10010) A potential plaintiff may not file a lawsuit under the CVRA until this 45-day period has elapsed, which in San Rafael’s case will be on January 4, 2018. Moreover, if the City passes such a resolution, it will have a further 90 days to adopt an ordinance implementing district-based elections before a lawsuit may be filed under the CVRA.
Having been alerted the previous week that Mr. Shenkman had sent his letter to the City, the City Council held a study session on November 20, 2017 on the subject of the CVRA. At that meeting, the City’s outside legal counsel, Christopher Skinnell from the San Rafael law firm Nielsen Merksamer, provided a general briefing on the federal and California Voting Rights Acts, as well as an overview of the City’s voter demographics to set the stage for further conversation on the subject. The City Council took questions from the public and committed to responding to public inquiry, along with a list of pros and cons for moving to district elections, at the City Council meeting of December 4, 2017.
For the convenience of the City Council and public as they discuss the issue of district-based elections, Staff has attempted to answer questions posed to date and to develop a preliminary list of pros and cons if the City Council determines to act to change the City’s election method to a district-based method rather than at-large.
Pros/Cons of Changing to District-based Elections System: The list below is a preliminary list based on information to date and will be expanded during/following public comment and City Council discussion.
- Avoidance of litigation expenses likely to range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to over a million dollars, because of liability for payment of prevailing plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and other costs.
- Enhancement of impact of minority votes on election results, making accurate representation of the community more likely.
- Decrease in cost of individual election campaigns, thus making it more likely that minority and non-minority candidates will choose to run for City Council.
- Increased minority participation in local government is more likely.
- Increased chance for election of minority Councilmembers.
- Catering to their own district’s voters, potential that City Councilmembers will advocate/vote more for their own districts rather than acting for the good of the City as a whole.
- If Office of Mayor remains separately elected, potential for enhanced role of Mayor who can be the swing vote on issues in any district.
- If City litigates and loses, districts will be established by the judge, with input from plaintiffs and the City, rather than by the City, possibly resulting in less optimal districts.
- Possible negative impact on minority interests if nonminority candidate prevails in election in district with the most minority voters.
The City is partnering with community groups to communicate information throughout the community. A website, www.cityofsanrafael.org/district-elections has been created to provide information about the topic, a schedule of meetings, and an online form for public feedback. This meeting was announced via the City’s website, email notifications, the City Manager’s newsletter and via social media. The City Council considered this issue at a Study Session on November 20, and will be considering this matter again at its December 4 and 18 Council meetings, and additional outreach will be conducted.
The fiscal impact of a change to district elections is unknown at this time.
Staff recommends that the City Council receive public comments and deliberate further on the issue of district-based elections in San Rafael.
November 10, 2017 letter to City from attorney Kevin Shenkman
Draft Questions and Answers (see below)