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Tim Myers: A look at a city district voting plan

Posted: May 19, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: May 19, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Kevin Shenkman, a Columbia-educated attorney based in Malibu, intends to prosecute a lawsuit against the city of Palmdale under the California Voting Rights Act to force the city to overturn Palmdale’s at-large system of electing its City Council members in favor of geographic council districts.

The VRA forbids systems that marginalize the voting power of minorities (before everyone gets excited about affirmative action, a group of Anglo voters in a majority Latino city such as Santa Ana could also use the VRA to overturn an at-large system), and a mathematical fact exists that an at-large system does just that. In the case of Palmdale, a city with a 54-percent Latino majority, no at-large election ever yielded a Latino candidate.

Shenkman informed me that, currently, no municipality fights a VRA lawsuit, but instead moves to settlement by putting together a district system to satisfy VRA standards.

It seems the only people with a knee-jerk reaction to fight a district system include only incumbents in an at-large system concerned about their re-elections, certain long-term professional municipal employees who instinctively fear change and a limited group of folks who see any VRA action in the light of marginalizing the historical dominance of middle-aged white males.

For this reason, all of the school districts in the SCV will consider the best method to transition from at-large to district seats with all deliberate speed. Shenkman informed me that I should not find myself surprised if the city of Santa Clarita faced a VRA lawsuit in the near future, so it appears that the formation of districts constitutes a question of when, and not if, so what would districts in Santa Clarita look like?

I first examined this question based on voting results in 2008, 2010 and again in 2012, and in each of these elections, identical patterns emerged that indicated five natural geographic districts.

First, one district would extend from Interstate 5 across to Seco Canyon, including the entirety of Mountainview, bounded on the south by Magic Mountain.

A second would extend from there and include the entire Plum Canyon area and Canyon Country down to Soledad Canyon Road.

The third would include the rest of Canyon Country, excluding Friendly Valley.

The fourth would be Friendly Valley, joining with Newhall south of Lyons Avenue and including Placerita Canyon. The final seat comprising Valencia between Lyons Avenue and Magic Mountain Parkway, including the Summit.

Would this reconfiguration allow for the election of a council member with the ethnicity of the most significant minority, Latino? The Newhall district would contain majority Latino residents, and they just might increase historically low turnout numbers to elect someone with a Latino surname for the first time in city history.

The other districts would still contain majority Anglo populations, but a City Council made up of four Anglo and one Latino member would most accurately reflect the actual ethnic makeup of the city — the goal of both the state and federal VRAs.

But some other interesting things occur that led many in the anti-incumbent party to endorse the idea of districts to break what looked like an incumbent stranglehold on the council. One can demonstrate, for example, that a district system would put either Laurie Ender or Frank Ferry off the council, since past voting patterns indicate they could only win in the same district — the first one mapped above.

But the most interesting thing occurs in the last election. Assuming that districts already existed, and Bob Kellar ran in the third district mapped above, where he currently resides, he would easily win re-election. But if Ender were running to hold the first district mapped above, she would narrowly prevail over TimBen Boydston, thus denying him a seat on the council.

A district system would put Ferry off the council (most likely) since he would find it necessary to run against David Gauny in the fifth district mapped above and would lose if voting patterns from 2010 replicated themselves.

Unless someone moved, in a district system incumbents Laurene Weste, Marsha McLean, and (now) Boydston would find themselves battling for the common seat in Newhall, perhaps against a candidate with a Latino surname, which would bring a whole new member of council from the area primarily constituting the Bouquet Canyon/Plum Canyon corridor, for only the second time in city history.

Good or bad? I think just different.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident.


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