Santa Rosa City Council members may soon be elected from specific areas of the city instead of the city as a whole to avert a threatened lawsuit alleging its current election system does not give Latino voters a fair voice in city governance.
Facing a potentially costly lawsuit that one council member likened to “extortion,” the City Council late Tuesday night voted unanimously to begin the process of abolishing the current system of at-large elections, where all seven council members represent the entire city. It would be replaced with district-based contests, where council members are elected from smaller geographic areas.
Voters soundly rejected that exact change in 2012, but council members said the recent threat of a lawsuit from an attorney representing a voting rights group was forcing their hand.
“I don’t want to waste the public’s dollars trying to fight a lawsuit that I don’t think we can win,” Councilman Chris Roger said.
The move promises to radically change the city’s political landscape in the long term, and nothing short of upheaval in the short term as the tight timelines required by the 2002 California Voting Rights Act threaten to bring other city initiatives to a standstill as the city races to implement the change.
“This will take precedence over everything else we are doing because we cannot afford to misstep,” said Councilman John Sawyer, a past opponent of district elections.
The council approved a 90-day timeline that will involve at least four public meetings to get public feedback, draw the districts and bring the issue back before the council for a Nov. 21 decision.
City Manager Sean McGlynn called that “an incredibly compressed timeframe” and expressed concern that other council priorities might have to take a backseat.
“Ninety days will go by in the blink of an eye, and getting information out will be challenging,” McGlynn said.
Council members strongly disagreed whether the new system would be an improvement or not. Mayor Chris Coursey said he believes the existing election system was unfair. Sawyer said he worried that carving the city into districts would create “fiefdoms” that leave council members less likely to do what’s right for the entire city.
But all seemed to agree that making the switch was the only viable course given the expensive alternatives facing the city. Holding an election to decide the point was estimated to cost $450,000, and as several council members pointed out, wouldn’t even decide the issue.
“If the voters turn down district elections, we’re going to be in the same place then that we are today,” Coursey said.
And fighting the case in court was estimated to cost up to $4.5 million, with no guarantee of victory. Several council members — who met earlier in closed session to discuss legal strategy with City Attorney Sue Gallagher — said they believed the city would probably lose.
The $4.5 million figure was the estimated cost incurred by the city of Palmdale, which lost its case and its appeal and had to implement district elections anyway, Gallagher said.
The decision by the Santa Rosa City Council follows the city’s receipt on July 17 of a letter from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who represents a Texas-based voting rights group. The letter claimed the city has “racially polarized voting,” as defined by the California Voting Rights Act. The Santa Rosa school district received a similar letter.
The 2002 law provides protection from such lawsuits for cities, counties and school districts if they signal their intent to switch to district elections within 45 days of getting such a letter. If they do, attorney’s fees are capped at $30,000.
The city attorney told the council that fighting such lawsuits is expensive and most jurisdictions facing them settle. The Santa Rosa school board, citing litigation costs, earlier this month voted to make the switch beginning in 2018.
Lawsuits that are settled quickly cost about $50,000, while the average cost of fighting such lawsuits appeared to be about $1 million, Gallagher said.
“These can be very expensive cases to try if you do not prevail at the end,” Gallagher said, adding that “successful defenses have been rare.”
The law, she said, prohibits at-large elections “in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or to influence the outcome of an election.” That’s known as “racially polarized voting,” something Shenkman claims exists in the city.
His letter argues that Latinos in the city haven’t been able to get their preferred candidates elected to office for years. He cites, among other things, the campaign of Juan Hernandez, who failed to win election to the council in 2010. At the time, Hernandez was president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and campaigning as a pro-business candidate. Shenkman’s letter makes no mention of the fact that Hernandez’s campaign faltered after it was revealed he was going through his second bankruptcy and owed $45,000 in back taxes.
Gallagher noted that Shenkman’s letter provided “no statistical evidence” to back up his claims nor did the city have any such proof.
But Caroline Banuelos, a Latina who has lost multiple council campaigns, said the evidence was everywhere if only people would open their eyes.
“The people of the west side need a voice, because they don’t have a voice here,” she said.
Banuelos, president of the Sonoma County Democratic Latino Club, said district elections will lower the cost of running for City Council and make council members more accountable to the public. District elections are needed in the bigger, more diverse city that Santa Rosa is becoming, she said.
“Please bring Santa Rosa into the 21st century, my God!” she said.
Not everyone agreed the change makes sense. While he voted to pursue it, Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, the only member of the City Council who lives on the west side of Highway 101, said he still makes decisions based on the best interests of the city.
“It has not been my habit to think what’s in the best interests of the part of town I live in, versus what is in the best interests of the community as a whole,” said Schwedhelm, a retired police chief.
And resident John McHugh argued that the Latino candidates lost not because of an unfair system but because “of their incredibly miserable campaigns.” He also said there was “no compelling evidence” to support claims of racially polarized voting, citing the election victories of Councilman Ernesto Olivares, who has won three consecutive terms.
McHugh urged the council “not to roll over on this issue” and to fight the case, arguing that the city could just as easily get threatened with a lawsuit by someone arguing against district elections.
But Coursey, who campaigned in support of district elections, sought to frame the issue as a moral one as much as a legal one.
“If we’re going to get sued, I’d rather get sued for doing the right thing, rather than defending a system that I believe excludes a large segment of our community,” Coursey said.