Under Threat of Lawsuit, City Council Declares Intent to Switch to District-based Elections

Citrus Heights  |  Story by Shaunna Boyd

CITRUS HEIGHTS, CA (MPG) - The five members of the Citrus Heights City Council serve overlapping four-year terms and are chosen through at-large elections in which the candidates who receive the highest number of votes are elected to represent all the citizens of the City.

On December 3, 2018, the City received a certified letter from a Malibu attorney, Kevin Shenkman, who—on behalf of his client, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project— alleges that the City’s at-large election method for selecting councilmembers violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

In his letter to the City, Shenkman alleged that the current “at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a ‘protected class’) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcomes of the City’s elections.” Shenkman cited 2010 Census data that indicates Latinos are approximately 16.5% of the City’s population. He said that despite making up a significant portion of the overall population, no Latinos have ever been elected to serve on the City Council. Shenkman alleged that the current election system is “fundamentally hostile towards Latino participation.” He further stated that a Latino has never emerged as a candidate for the Council during the past 20 years, which “reveals vote dilution” in the City’s election process.

Shenkman urged Citrus Heights to voluntarily change its at-large election system, stating that his firm will file a lawsuit if the City does not declare its intent to transition to district-based elections.

On January 10, the city attorney, after much research on the subject, told the Council that she was unable to find any cases in which a city or public agency has successfully defended at-large election systems against a legal challenge under the CVRA. Most public agencies, when threatened with litigation, have chosen to switch to district-based elections. The cities and agencies that have gone to court to defend their at-large elections against CVRA challenges have lost—at a high cost: In addition to paying their own attorney’s fees, they have been ordered to reimburse the plaintiffs for attorney’s fees and legal costs.

In CVRA lawsuits, a “Safe Harbor” provision in California Elections Code limits the City’s liability to plaintiffs’ counsel (capped at $30,000 for legal fees) if the City adopts a resolution of intent to switch to district-based elections within 45 days of receiving the demand letter (in this case, that deadline was January 17). Adopting the resolution bars the prospective plaintiff from filing suit for 90 days, during which time the City must conduct at least five public hearings to draw district maps and adopt an official ordinance establishing district-based elections. If the City voluntarily transitions to district-based elections under Safe Harbor, it retains control over determining district boundaries with input from the community through the public hearing process. A written agreement between the City and the prospective plaintiff can add an additional 90 days to the process, for a total of 180 days to conduct public outreach and determine district boundaries, and Mr. Shenkman has expressed willingness to agree to the extension.

The City does not acknowledge that any CVRA violation has occurred due to the current at-large election system, but since public agencies that have litigated this issue ended up paying millions of dollars to prevailing plaintiff attorneys, the recommendation was for the City to adopt a resolution declaring the Council’s intent to transition to district-based elections under the Safe Harbor provision.

In the proposed district-based election system, the City will be divided into separate districts with one councilmember residing in each district. Adopting the resolution of intent will not affect the terms of any of the current councilmembers. Regardless of what boundaries are drawn in the districting process, all current councilmembers will serve their full four-year terms.  But when a councilmember’s term ends, they will only be able to run for election in the new district where they live. 

During public comment on this issue, local resident David Warren expressed concern that “the City is being extorted by this attorney to generate fees.” He suggested that before the City Council votes on this issue they investigate whether Shenkman actually has the legal authority to file a lawsuit for this jurisdiction. Warren believes that creating districts within the City will ensure small groups of people will control the decisions for everyone. He said, “We will not be benefitted by this…We need the best people on the City Council, even if they happen to live near each other.”

Mayor Jeannie Bruins said, “I feel like we’re being held hostage. If even one city had prevailed against these lawsuits, we might have a hair of a chance. But it’s not a good use of taxpayer dollars to lose a case.” She called for a vote, and the Council voted unanimously to adopt the resolution. Mayor Bruins said, “It reluctantly carries.”