Windsor Town Council members agreed Tuesday night to host a series of public meetings to gather input from residents who may be most affected by a potential change to district-based council elections, an overhaul the city might make to dodge a legal threat raised by a Southern California attorney.
The move again puts off a final decision over whether the town will make the switch or stick with its current at-large election system and meet Malibu-based lawyer Kevin Shenkman in court.
“This is not something we are happily discussing tonight and whatever we end up deciding you should all know we are in talks with state legislators to see what else can be done regarding these lawsuits against towns across California,” Mayor Dominic Foppoli said.
The Town Council has now met four times to discuss Shenkman’s demands, first presented in an Oct. 22 letter alleging the town was violating the state’s Voting Rights Act. Shenkman contends that Windsor’s at-large elections disenfranchise Latino candidates and the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice.
He made similar claims and legal threats against Santa Rosa and its public school district, and both government bodies have switched to district-based elections. Dozens of local governments across California have faced similar legal threats from Shenkman.
Windsor, with a population of about 27,000 is among the smallest.
“This is the most appalling thing I have ever seen,” said Windsor resident Richard Coombs, who was one of a handful of residents who discussed their anger and frustration with legal threat.
But Shenkman, who pursues such cases on behalf of the Texas-based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said during a November interview that his firm is very specific in what cities they decide to send letters to and that they have a 100 percent success rate.
“Right before Santa Monica lost to us on Nov. 8, one city attorney did an interview and said ‘If Santa Monica can’t beat this then nobody can’, and guess what, Santa Monica didn’t beat us,” Shenkman said. Santa Monica spent $10 million in legal fees on the court fight.
Windsor Town Attorney Robin Donoghue presented materials describing the hurdles Windsor could face if they decide to fight the lawsuit. Less than 10 cities have tried to fight it in California and none have prevailed, Shenkman said.
“A defendant’s legal fees can be $500,000 or more and a city or town must also pay Shenkman’s legal fees if Windsor is unsuccessful,” Donoghue said during her presentation. “The plaintiff, which in this case is Shenkman on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, has a low bar to prevail in a lawsuit like this.”
“Even if Windsor prevails, another plaintiff may challenge us later,” Donoghue said
The town now has 90 days to commit to the electoral change or confront the court fight. During that time it plans to hold two public hearings for input on voting districts and an additional two meetings on drawing districts that could be submitted for approval.
“It sounds like the first order of business tonight is we have to start planning these meetings or we are facing this lawsuit,” said Councilwoman Esther Lemus.