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UPDATE: Santa Clarita announces settlement agreement in Voting Rights Act lawsuit

Posted: March 11, 2014 6:41 p.m.
Updated: March 11, 2014 7:22 p.m.

The Santa Clarita City Council announced tonight it has reached a settlement agreement in the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit aimed at addressing the suit’s claims without creating districts in the city.

The agreement proposes two separate efforts to make changes in city elections to deal with the lawsuit’s claim that at-large elections dilute the Hispanic vote in Santa Clarita.

The first plan calls for the city to approve an ordinance at some future meeting that would change the Santa Clarita City Council elections from every other year in April to every other year in November when statewide elections are held.

“The change to November may result in an increased voter turnout, which would be of benefit to the election process for all voters by encouraging greater voter participation,” says a summary of the settlement agreement released tonight.

The change would take effect in the 2016 elections.

But the revision in election dates would be subject to the approval of Los Angeles County, since November statewide elections are run by the county Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office.

Several Santa Clarita Valley school districts have attempted to have their elections consolidated with county-run elections but failed.

The second change in city elections to be considered under the agreement is adopting a “cumulative voting method,” the statement says.

Rather than limiting voters to one vote per candidate, as the current system does, cumulative voting allows voters to cast multiple votes for a single candidate.

For example, in the April 8 election this year, three seats on the council are open, but a voter can cast only one vote for a maximum of three candidates. Under cumulative voting, a voter could cast as many as three votes for a single candidate.

Cumulative voting is not used by any general law cities in California, the public statement notes. Adopting a cumulative voting system would require court approval and could require certification from the California Secretary of State, the statement says.

If neither effort is successfully undertaken, the lawsuit would resume under the agreement announced in City Council Chambers tonight.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in June 2013 on behalf of Santa Clarita residents Jim Soliz and Rosemarie Sanchez-Fraser, proposes creating districts within the city as a solution to alleged Hispanic vote dilution.

The city has strongly opposed giving up its at-large system, whereby all residents of the city elect all five council members, rather than each district electing a single representative.

The suit alleging California Voting Rights Act violations was filed by two law firms. One of them, Shenkman & Hughes of Malibu, has filed many such lawsuits against municipalities in California.

The Santa Clarita Community College District and Sulphur Springs School District are among those sued by the firm in the Santa Clarita Valley.

A lawsuit filed against Palmdale is on appeal after that Antelope Valley city fought and lost the case.
The public statement read at the City Council meeting tonight noted the potential high cost of battling the issue in court.

“A trial and possible subsequent appeal of the lawsuit would be very costly to the city, perhaps as much as $1.5 million or more to defend,” it reads.

“Further, if the case resulted in an adverse determination for the city, the city would also have to pay plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, likely millions, and would have less control over possible remedies than if it acts on its own.”

Most municipalities facing like lawsuits have settled, many agreeing to subdivide their areas of representation into districts.

The settlement agreement was approved on a council vote of 4-1. Councilwoman Marsha McLean had the lone dissenting voice.

“Sometimes you have to look at what’s right and wrong, and you have to fight what’s wrong,” McLean said, but adding that she was not opposed to changing elections to November.





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