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More voting lawsuits

College of the Canyons and Sulphur Springs School District subjects of suits over Voting Rights Act

Posted: July 6, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 6, 2013 2:00 a.m.

College of the Canyons and the Sulphur Springs School District were added to the list of Santa Clarita Valley municipal agencies sued by two law firms for allegedly hosting election systems that dilute the Latino vote.
The city of Santa Clarita had previously been identified as a target of the lawsuits.

In each case, the suits allege the at-large method for electing representatives — whereby voters throughout a municipal agency choose from a pool of common candidates, rather than electing by districts — prevents Latino voters from electing candidates of their choice, a violation of the 2001 California Voting Rights Act.

“It’s not so much about the ethnicity of the candidates,” said Kevin Shenkman, a lawyer with the Malibu-based law firm Shenkman & Hughes that is representing plaintiffs in suits against COC, Sulphur Springs and the city. “What it’s really about is who the candidates of choice are for minority groups.”

The suits suggest switching to a different electoral system, such as district-based elections, which would allow voters within defined areas of the municipal agency to represent their interests.

But while most municipal agencies in the Santa Clarita Valley, including water and school boards, also hold at-large elections, suits have not been filed against them as of yet, according to Shenkman.

“We have not determined whether we will pursue other jurisdictions within Santa Clarita,” Shenkman said.

Joan MacGregor, a COC board member and former longtime trustee for the Sulphur Springs district, said the lawsuit against the college is “unfortunate.”

She also said that moving to a district-based election system is not as simple as it sounds, as the local minority population, though concentrated in some areas, is spread out across the entire Santa Clarita Valley.

“Our problem is, geographically, it is difficult to divide this valley into appropriate district areas,” she said.
But MacGregor said she does not think it is necessary to change the way elections are conducted.

“We’ve had good quality trustees and I think our educational system shows that,” she said.

Date changes
Earlier this year local school districts, along with the Newhall County Water District, sought to change their election dates from odd-numbered to even-numbered years in an attempt to increase voter turnout. Having elections in even-numbered years would put them on the same ballot with high-interest presidential or gubernatorial elections.

Doing so could have provided additional insulation against Voting Rights Act litigation, according to officials.
But that attempt failed when county officials raised concern with how the additional elections might strain an already-crowded county ballot. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors split 2-2-1 on whether to approve the shift.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who represents the Santa Clarita Valley, voted in favor of the changes.
For his part, Shenkman said the shift to even-numbered years would have been a step in the right direction.  
“The districts were absolutely correct in at least one respect when they said holding elections in an odd year has an exacerbating effect on keeping Latinos from having their voices heard,” he said.

The three suits contain similar claims that elections in the three Santa Clarita Valley municipalities are “racially polarized,” with Latino voters supporting candidates of their choice and non-Latino candidates voting against them.

The suit against the city, for instance, specifically mentions the case of Michael Cruz, a current member of the city Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2006, as evidence of this.

Though Cruz did quite well among Latino voters in Santa Clarita, according to Shenkman, he struggled to collect votes from other demographics.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Cruz told The Signal he could not comment on the matter due to his position in the city.

Shenkman said the at-large system could deter minority candidates from seeking office.
“Serious candidates aren’t going to run when they don’t think they can win,” he said.

Members of the Santa Clarita City Council and the COC Board of Trustees will meet with legal counsel on the lawsuits in closed session meetings next week, according to posted agendas.

Shenkman said the sooner everyone can sit down at the table to discuss the suits, the better.

“I would invite that conversation; we’ve asked for that conversation,” he said. “And I think sooner than later is better for everyone concerned.”


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