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Tim Myers: Reform busts into crowded at-large race

Posted: July 13, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 13, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Two big recent occurrences in local city politics for those few but faithful who pay attention: The at-large race for three City Council seats in 2014 gets more and more crowded with two incumbents seeking to defend their seats and (now) six serious challengers — and perhaps one more to come — scrumming over the "open" seat left by Frank Ferry’s decision not to seek a fourth term — or for all three seats, depending on one’s level of optimism.

Of more long-term interest, a law firm from Malibu was joined by R. Rex Parris’s (mayor of Lancaster) law firm in serving a long-rumored lawsuit against the city of Santa Clarita (and local school and community college districts) alleging that the at-large nature of the city elections dilutes the Latino vote in the city, a violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

Census figures from 2010 show that Latinos make up just under 30 percent of the city’s population with no Hispanic member of the City Council EVER.

I enjoy dissecting results of local elections. In 1998, I studied results to determine if the at-large nature of City Council elections gave an advantage to certain regions of the city.

In other words, did Valencia voters turn out in (marginally) higher numbers than other voters in other areas, thus playing a larger role in electing council members, and thus confirming the Valencia bias conspiracy theories of the time — ranging from park and road construction to retail placement to my personal favorite, the timing of mail delivery. (Yes, kids, people once cared deeply about what time the mail arrived!)

Fortunately (?), it turned out that voters throughout the city in 1998 (and since) turned out at uniformly dreadful rates, so no area foisted its will on the rest.

While I cannot comment on the dilution of minority voters’ voices, I do know certain things about at-large elections from the results:

In most of the at-large elections in Santa Clarita, the winners capture or retain their seats by getting approximately 46 percent to 48 percent of the votes available while the myriad challengers "dilute" their own chances by dividing up the 52 percent to 54 percent of anti-incumbent votes available. (At-large elections require no actual majority to win.)

This explains why it seems that a majority of the involved folks despise the incumbents: A majority of the involved folks actually do despise the incumbents, but the collective anti-incumbency vote is divided among multiple candidates.

So, interestingly, members of the majority anti-incumbent "party" mooted the possibility of council districts to break the (near) lock of incumbency long before anyone heard of the California Voting Rights Act and minority vote dilution.

They also mooted the possibility of moving the elections to November to increase turnout. My research into at-large November races in cities in Ventura and Orange counties seem to indicate that an increased turnout just results in incumbents winning by more.

Would districts actually break the back of incumbency? The theory goes that if the six current challengers could go head to head with the existing council members instead of scrumming, they might indeed harness the power of the anti-incumbency party.

After checking the results of the 2008 and 2010 elections, however, I found that of the five sitting council members at that time, four would retain their seats by coming first in certain fairly straightforward districts in the city — with the exception of Frank Ferry, who "won" the areas of newer Valencia in 2010 where Laurie Ender cleaned up in 2008, making them rivals for the same district.

And to add to irony, if electoral districts existed in 2012, Laurie Ender would still sit on the City Council, since she comfortably "won" her probable district in 2012, thank you very much.

I tend to favor at-large elections since it might prevent log-rolling by individual council members.

In other words, a district-elected council member would always vote against unpopular actions, such as development, in his or her own district while joining in a 4-1 majority vote on unpopular actions in other districts.

Think the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

But in reality, before TimBen Boydston joined the City Council in 2012, 5-0 votes were the most common on most issues of controversy, so what would interested citizens lose in a district system?

From my standpoint, I must admit that I care about the game more than the outcome, so I actually might lean toward a district system, since while I cannot predict the outcome, I would at least find it interesting.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. "Myers Musings" appears Saturdays in The Signal.


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