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An attorney representing a voting rights organization has accused Santa Rosa of running an electoral system that disenfranchises Latino voters, a move that could lead to a change in the way residents elect city council and school board members.

Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman sent letters to the city and Santa Rosa City Schools last week claiming the citywide election system has resulted in “racially polarized voting” patterns that violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

Shenkman represents the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that seeks to increase participation by Latinos in the democratic process.

He specializes in such voting rights suits. Shenkman successfully forced the City of Palmdale in 2013 to change its election system from citywide to district-based. He has also targeted other Bay Area cities of late, including Fremont and Dublin, and has about a dozen active cases in Southern California.

“Given the historical lack of Latino representation on the city council in the context of racially polarized elections, we urge Santa Rosa to voluntarily change its at-large system of electing council members,” Shenkman wrote to the city earlier this month.

Santa Rosa elects its City Council members to four-year terms through at-large elections every two years. That means every registered voter in the city can vote for any candidate, with top vote-getters winning the open seats. The seven-member school board operates in a similar manner.

Larger government jurisdictions tend to have district-based election systems where voters elect representatives from a specific geographic area, such as congressional and state legislative districts, as well as local entities like the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and Santa Rosa Junior College.

Supporters of district election argue that smaller voting areas makes it easier and less expensive for people to run for local office. This, in turn, makes it easier for minorities to get elected from their neighborhood.

Opponents claim council members can still, with a little legwork and solid financial backing, run effective citywide campaigns. They suggest it is better for council members to be elected by and to represent the entire city, not just their own little fiefdoms.

Santa Rosa voters soundly defeated the idea of switching to district elections in 2012.

The annexation of the heavily Latino Roseland neighborhood, likely to happen by the end of the year, has long been expected to have dramatic impacts on city elections, including making the case for district elections stronger.

Shenkman informed the city in a July 17 letter that the city’s elections have not allowed Latino residents, whom he states make up 28.6 percent of the population, to receive fair representation on the City Council.

He appears to be using the 2010 U.S. Census data. Census estimates since then peg the percentage of Latino or Hispanic voters at 31 percent of the city’s 172,000 population.

Shenkman acknowledged that local residents supportive of district elections reached out to get him interested in the fairness of Santa Rosa elections.

He notes that just one Latino, former mayor and current council member Ernesto Olivares, has ever served on the seven-member City Council. He points out that two other Latino candidates, Caroline Banuelos and Juan Hernandez, failed to win seats on the council in 2006 and 2010 respectively despite being “preferred” by “Latino constituents.”

There are 89,000 registered voters in Santa Rosa. Elections officials do not track voters’ ethnicity, let alone how they vote. Nevertheless, Shenkman concludes the two failing Latino candidates were “unable to successfully counteract the power of the non-Latino majority as a voting bloc.”

In an interview Monday, Shenkman said experts can demonstrate this using a statistical analysis method called “ecological regression.” The method essentially cross-references precinct-by-precinct election results with census data to make the case that candidates favored by Latino voters didn’t prevail, he said.

A host of factors may have contributed to those candidates failing to win their respective contests.

Banuelos, for example, received far less financial support than winning candidates during her city council runs in 2004 and 2006. And Hernandez, despite being the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and campaigning as a pro-business candidate, was going through his second bankruptcy at the time of the council race and owed $45,000 in back taxes.

Shenkman said it is common for people in such instances to disparage the qualifications or quality of the campaigns run by Latinos to explain their electoral failures. But in such cases one would expect both groups to disfavor the candidates equally, and that’s not the case, Shenmkan said.

“Didn’t we just vote for a president who had four bankruptcies?” he said.

The letter to the Santa Rosa school board also attempts to make the case that Omar Medina’s campaigns in 2004 and 2014 failed for the same reasons.

The letter claims that in 2014 incumbent Laura Gonzalez and Banuelos came in fifth and six respectively in the run for four open seats, but that was in 2016, not 2014. It also ignores that Gonzalez served on the board for eight years before her ouster.

The school board is scheduled to consider the matter in closed session Wednesday, said spokeswoman Beth Berk. Santa Rosa officials expect to review the letter in closed session in coming weeks, said City Attorney Sue Gallagher.

A state law that took effect this year shields government agencies against such suits for 45 days after receiving such a letter and for 90 days after pledging to transition to district-based elections.

It also provides for reasonable legal fees up to $30,000 for plaintiffs who force the change.

Shenkman said he’s aware the Roseland annexation is pending and is willing to reach a reasonable agreement with the city over the deadlines outlined in the law.

“My main interest is making sure that this is done in advance of the next election cycle in 2018,” Shenkman said.