The City Got Sued — Will Santa Clarita’s Voting System Change?Crystal Duan May 12, 2019 0 COMMENTS
In 2016, the city of Santa Clarita changed its voting system in what at the time was considered a large pivot — a game changer, at least culturally.
For the first time since its incorporation in 1987, the city changed its council election dates from April to November, combining with the state and federal elections in a $1.2 million move.
The reason? The city got sued in 2014 on grounds of violating the California Voting Rights Act, a state law that relaxes requirements for minority groups to prove that their votes are being diluted in at-large elections.
Santa Clarita has an at-large city council, which means it currently elects different candidates who don’t represent specific districts.
In the case of the CVRA, cities that have never had minority representation or have a history of minority candidate suppression can be liable for damages, or at least microscopic examination of their attitudes toward racial justice.
Santa Clarita ultimately settled the lawsuit and simply had to shift its election dates to better account for voter participation in hopes to bolster an accurate representation count.
Moving the city council elections to November was supposed to create more racial fairness for the election, but instead flipped arguments of inequality to another area.
The legal fight prompted an ongoing ideological debate that goes on to this day — should Santa Clarita support change to its governing structures and overall ways of operating?
Under the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit, the city’s election system violated state law by allowing all the city’s registered voters to cast ballots for any open council seat.
Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman brought the suit to the city in 2013, claiming the balloting system diluted the votes of Latino residents and denied them effective political participation.
At a glance, the scrutiny may seem just another casualty of what at the time was a de facto audit of many cities’ compliance with the law. Others, such as Santa Monica and Palmdale, also came under fire around that time.
Shenkman drew up a case against the city of Palmdale, which unlike Santa Clarita lost its case and changed its voting system on the grounds of a court order to hold district elections.
Another reason drove Shenkman’s quest and curiosity about this town: Santa Clarita is currently the only general law city in the state of California with a population of over 200,000 that still employs at-large elections.
“I think it is very unusual,” Shenkman said in April 2019. “I think it’s really a matter of an older, whiter, more conservative past controlling a city that is no longer that.”
Plaintiffs Jim Soliz and Rosemarie Sanchez-Fraser initially sought the adoption of voting districts — a system in which voters would only be able to vote for one council member in their district for a seat on the City Council, as opposed to being able to vote for all of them.
Per the terms of the 2014 settlement agreement with two plaintiffs, the city simply moved the voting dates.
They also originally agreed to investigate moving to a cumulative voting system in which citizens could vote multiple times for one candidate, but that was later reversed by the California Secretary of State’s office.
Did that move put them in complete compliance with the 2001 act? According to Shenkman, not necessarily.
“Proving non-compliance could still be done in theory, but it comes down to if plaintiffs are willing to go the exhaustive distance to pull the receipts,” Shenkman said.
He thinks it may switch based on party. The sitting Santa Clarita City Council, many of whom are Republicans, may not want to. But maybe Democrats will.
With demographics in Santa Clarita becoming a Democratic majority, and the recent victories of newly elected ‘blue wave’ officials, the city’s electoral process could shift soon.
When the city was first formed in 1987, about 59 percent of residents chose the current at-large voting system over by-district elections.
Many systems had been considered before deciding the constituency would be best served by an at-large system, recalled now-Mayor Marsha McLean, who sat on the council in its first round of community elections.
“With this move, we would not be pitting one area against another,” McLean said. “There would be five council members looking out for and after the interests of all residents, and not bickering between the districts to get one project over another.”
The idea of districts seemed quite absurd for a new town like Santa Clarita at the time, when there were barely enough people for one.
McLean said the city is indeed made up of a very diverse population, but that its demographic distribution actually negates the idea that an at-large candidate would have less of a chance.
“We have a number of ethnicities spread out over the entire city and any viable candidate has an equal opportunity to run for city council and to win,” she said. “Any viable candidate has the ability to go knocking on doors, to put their tables out in front of supermarkets, to get the right opinion pieces in the newspaper, and that is what has happened.
“If we tried to divide our city into districts, because of the diversity of where people live, it would be virtually impossible because we have many ethnicities living all over the city.”
When Shenkman’s lawsuit was filed, it had casualties — and big side effects for other governing bodies in the Santa Clarita area.
The schools in Santa Clarita also found themselves in the crossfire. There were suits against College of the Canyons and Sulphur Springs School District in 2013 and Saugus Union School District in 2015. Unlike the city, all Santa Clarita school districts, including the Hart and Newhall school districts, changed to district voting.
McLean explained that this may have had unintended consequences if the lawsuit was filed on grounds of trying to bolster minority representation.
“The one Latina on the Hart school board was voted out because her base was over the entire Hart district,” she said. “It was not just in one area, so it did exactly the opposite of what the proponents of the districts system wanted.”
Representatives of the Hart School District could not be reached for comment.
In the years since the lawsuit, Santa Clarita also put Latino members, Councilman Bill Miranda and former Assemblyman Dante Acosta, on the council, a move that McLean believes indicates the city’s commitment to representing diverse voices.
Soliz agreed with McLean that at-large voting truly was a good system. His concerns about diversity weren’t just that there were no Latinos on a city council.
He doesn’t think the repercussions of the city’s change have diffused the problem of representation. Looking back at that era, Soliz said his misgivings had never even necessarily been exclusive to the minority vote.
Instead, his misgivings were more about the pushing out of minority businesses, such as Tres Sierra’s in 2005. Certain neighborhoods with rich cultural pockets had representatives that primarily came from across town in wealthy Valencia.
“District voting doesn’t mean necessarily you’ll have a change in the city council,” he said. “Republicans are so worried they’ll have a change in the politics, but that’s not the issue. It’s about representing the districts, and there could still be a majority of Republicans there.”
Soliz said he had already been concerned for years about the representation of the changing city, even before Shenkman’s lawsuit emerged. Over time, he noticed Santa Clarita eroded its status as the commuter workforce it was in 1987, when an at-large system had made sense for people that spent more time in Los Angeles proper.
As business expanded and the city’s population kept tripling, Soliz believed people’s interests changed too — and are still changing more than ever.
While Santa Clarita residents may debate the distribution of Santa Clarita’s neighborhoods, interested parties around the state are microscopically examining the city’s political processes.
Around the time of the CVRA lawsuit, a man who would eventually briefly be a state senator began examining the “Democratic purpose” by investigating the CVRA’s impact.
Josh Newman, former state senator of the 29th Senate District until June 2018, found that out of approximately 482 incorporated cities and towns in the state of California, fewer than 90 are charter cities, leaving the remainder organized under California’s general law provisions.
Many of these general law cities were chartered when their populations were smaller and less demographically diverse.
“In that context, the traditional ‘at-large’ system of elections, where candidates for local office all run as a group, citywide, with either the top two or top three candidates winning election, made a decent amount of sense,” Newman said.
That is, if the cities stayed that small. Newman observed two steady trends in California over the past several decades — substantial population growth characterized by massive demographic change — could impact elections if they stayed too centralized.
Santa Clarita emerged as an outlier in its size and retention of its original governing structure. Newman found this alarming.
“Those changes, among others in politics, have led to a status quo where all but the best-funded candidates—either through contributions or their own personal wealth—can afford to mount competitive campaigns for local office.” he said.
Newman wanted to eliminate that. The former senator was on the verge of introducing a bill to combat this and put a cap on the population size for cities with such governing systems. The proposed population threshold would have been up to 200,000 residents for a city to employ at-large elections. After that, they would be beholden to districting.
Although the bill didn’t get traction before Newman’s election recall in June 2018, others in Santa Clarita proper share his concerns due to experience.
The skyrocketing costs of elections at all levels and the impact of money in politics concerns Diane Trautman, former City Planning Commissioner and 2018 City Council candidate.
Trautman came in fourth place in the November 2018 election at a 1.72-percent differential to third place incumbent Bill Miranda’s 10.88 percent of the vote.
She fell short by 2,341 votes, but those votes were costly.
Although Trautman was close, running again may not even be in her future, due to the financial stress of running a citywide campaign in an “area that’s growing this rapidly.”
“One mailer can cost $15,000,” Trautman said. “Campaign consultants will say you have to do at least three mailers to cut it close. Winning candidates have had to raise money after they ran to close their debt. For the average person to try and do that is incredibly difficult, especially if you need the connections in the community to raise substantial money.”
Even though she had run before, owned a local business and was a planning commissioner, Trautman’s name recognition only got her so far.
“I don’t know how to crack through the walls that were created by the money and the powers that be,” she said. “It’s not just allowing new people to get a voice, it’s also about allowing more diverse voices [from different] socioeconomic backgrounds.”
“I have found that when you discuss the issues and concept with actual voters, the arguments in favor of such a move tend to be seen as fairly self-evident,” Newman said. “But when you have the same conversation with elected officials, interest groups, and political ‘Insiders’, all of whom have become very comfortable with a system that seems to meet their needs and goals, you get a very different point of view.”
Mayor Pro Tem Cameron Smyth was elected to his current term in 2016 after the election date changes. His first term in office was in 2004.
He recalled receiving about 7,000 votes in 2004. Fast forward 12 years — he received over 30,000 votes, an over 400 percent increase.
Smyth’s perspective is that the change in election dates have benefitted the city, although he does not believe its growth necessarily entails altering the election procedures.
Other repercussions that the lawsuit settlement almost gave way to — he isn’t so sure of.
A former assemblymember, Smyth recalls that while he was in the legislature, there were a number of lawsuits against local businesses around the American Disabilities Act that he believes were similar in nature to the CVRA.
“People were coming into restaurants and measuring the height of the support bars in the bathroom or the paper towel dispensers,” Smyth said. “And then they’d send a lawsuit to that business threatening litigation if they didn’t settle. I remember working with disability advocates in the legislature cleaning up bills like that.”
Smyth said he thought some law firms saw an opportunity to use the Voting Rights Act as a similar way to possibly make revenue off public agencies.
As the only current Santa Clarita official to have served in two capacities — the state in Assembly districts, and the city council with an at-large body — the mayor pro tem believes there are benefits and arguments to be made on both sides.
“I think it’s an interesting policy discussion,” he said. “One thing you could argue with an at-large circumstance is I am, as a council member, beholden to every voter in the city. Every vote I take is accountable to the entire city. You could argue that when you go to districts, you then are accountable only to the interests of say, if someone’s district was just Newhall. If I voted on something Canyon Country residents didn’t like, they have no recourse because they’re not in a position to vote or to speak with their votes.”
McLean is also worried about division of special interests if at-large voting was taken away, and touts the current system’s setup as vital to eliminating that.
“If you go to districts, you’ll have power struggles,” McLean said. “Each council member would be fighting over funds for their own district.”
The mayor also pointed to her own position on the council, which will last a year, as indicative of the city government’s general peacekeeping success.
Besides espousing an at-large election system since 1987, the city government has always operated under a “council-manager” system. The system has five elected city council members that supervise a city manager who is ultimately responsible for the day-to-day city administration. The governing council’s ‘head,’ the mayor, rotates every year.
“The rotating mayor takes the politics out of one person having more power over any of the other council members,” she said. “The rotating mayor gives each resident who voted for that person an opportunity to have that person be mayor for one year. I think it gives the residents a benefit of having a different point of view. Sometimes if you have an elected mayor and the mayor doesn’t have the best interest of everyone at heart, you’re stuck with that person. This way you know they’re only going to be there for a year.”
Trautman said concerns about power struggles in districting are valid, but not necessarily applicable to Santa Clarita’s culture.
“I think it’s possible people can be sort of territorial in the event of districts,” Trautman said. “But I also think that an area in a city of ours, we’re not so widespread that what happens in one area isn’t gonna affect another. So people are going to know whether they have a council member for their best interests which will be the interests of everyone else in the city. If something bad happens in Canyon Country, if they don’t have what they need, that doesn’t reflect well on the city overall.
“You could also say, the benefit of a district is you get a chance to really know your individual representative,” she said. “Our city census says we’re at over 200,000 people, and more accountability could be distributed better.”
“As the city continues to grow, I certainly recognize that Santa Clarita is a much different place than it was when we incorporated,” Smyth said. “And if that growth changes governmental structures to ensure that we are still providing the best representation possible, I never close the door to that.”
Shenkman said that any interest in systemic change would have to come from within.
Cumulative voting would have made it possible to vote multiple times for the same candidate, which proponents said would boost the electoral power of minority voters.
If cumulative voting had been approved, he believes that would have helped the plight of the residents.
“I think it would’ve gone a long way to solving the problems,” Shenkman said. “Picture an election for five members of a board that requires you vote not more than five, and you can only cast one vote for one candidate, so if you only like one candidate, you don’t vote for anyone else. You decline to cast your other four. And the distribution makes more sense.”
“I don’t think the obstacle here is the plaintiff emerging,” he said. “I think you could spit in the wind and it would probably hit a potential plaintiff who’s unhappy with city politics. The question becomes how this happens, and if people really care about change.”
Soliz espouses a similar argument, as this to him goes beyond racial minority interests. Classism is also in the mix, as more affluent neighborhoods get a better represented perspective, even if it is unintentional.
A new blue wave could address that.
While the percentage of Democratic voters in Santa Clarita has remained relatively steady over the past several election cycles, recently released data shows a continued decrease in Republican voter registration and a trend of increasing independent registration in Santa Clarita and its encompassing electoral districts.
New residents moving in has given local Democrats a slight edge in voter registration numbers, prompting more questions about the at-large system’s feasibility.
Since Oct. 22, 2018, there has been a 0.16 percent decrease in Democratic registration, a 0.77 decrease in Republican registration and a 0.92 percent increase in independent registration in Santa Clarita. Despite experiencing a slight decrease from October to February, Democrats now outnumber Republicans in Santa Clarita.
The 25th Congressional District and 38th Assembly District are also now helmed by female Democrats Rep. Katie Hill, D-Agua Dulce, and Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita.
Soliz said the people of Santa Clarita noticed they wanted change in the last election — and they may soon notice a potential change on a city level.
“There was a spirit of opposition on the congressional level, and that was the reason why Katie Hill won,” he said. “There’s no mood of spirit or opposition toward the city council as it is organized. I don’t see anybody jumping up and down going to city council meetings.
“People don’t perceive they have a dog in the fight,” he said. “Yet in every day in little ways, whether they know it or not, they’re starting to feel it. Increased cost of living, prices on homes going up, quality of life being increasingly challenged for our seniors. These are all local issues our council isn’t addressing, because they are still treating us as we were before — a community of commuters. Your work force isn’t out there anymore, it’s here.”
Crystal Duan is a West Coast-raised, Midwest-bred writer based in Los Angeles.