Twentynine Palms Latest SBC City Being Forced To Accept Ward Systems

Twentynine Palms has been included in the rash of San Bernardino County’s cities being threatened with legal action if a demand that future city council elections be changed from at-large to district-based is not met. And it appears, at least tentatively, that city officials there will knuckle under to the pressure.
Already Chino Hills, Chino, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Highland and Redlands have moved to change their election systems to create wards which can only be represented by those living within them and the constituents of which likewise live only within each particular confine.
Highland was the first San Bernardino County city served with a demand that it alter the way it elects its council members. The lawsuit was filed July 18, 2014 in San Bernardino Superior Court by a Lancaster-based lawyer, R. Rex Parris, in conjunction with the Malibu-based law firm Shenkman & Hughes and the Los Angeles-based Law Office of Milton C. Grimes on behalf of Lisa Garrett, a Latina resident of Highland. In response, the city put an initiative on the November 2014 ballot, Measure T, asking if the city’s residents were in favor of a ward system. Measure T went down to defeat, with 2,862 votes or 43.01 percent in favor and 3,793, or 56.99 percent opposed. The lawsuit proceeded and the city sought to assuage the demand by proposing to allow cumulative voting, in which each voter is given one vote for each contested position and is allowed to cast any or all of those votes for any one candidate, or spread the votes among the candidates. When the matter went to trial, despite making a finding that the socio-economic based rationale presented by the plaintiff’s attorneys to support the need for ward elections was irrelevant and that the plaintiff’s assertion that district voting was the only way to cure the alleged violation of the Voting Rights Act was false, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge David Cohn mandated that Highland adopt a ward system.
In December 2015 Kevin Shenkman, using the letterhead of his firm, Shenkman & Hughes, sent boilerplate letters to the cities of Chino, Upland and Rancho Cucamonga, among nearly a dozen others, noting the cities “relie[d] upon at-large election system[s] for electing candidates to [their] city council[s]” and charged that “voting within [those cities] is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution, and therefore [those cities’] at large elections are violative of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. It is our belief [those cities’] at-large system[s] dilute the ability of minority residents – particularly Latinos (a “protected class”) – to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of [those cities’] council elections.” In those letters, Shenkman threatened to sue the cities “on behalf of residents” if those cities’ at-large council systems were not replaced by ones based on district representation.
To emphasize his point and raise the level of intimidation, Shenkman wrote, “As you may be aware, in 2012, we sued the City of Palmdale for violating the California Voting Rights Act. After an eight-day trial, we prevailed. After spending millions of dollars, a district-based remedy is ultimately being imposed upon the Palmdale city council (sic), with districts that combine all incumbents into one of four districts.”
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, known by its acronym MALDEF, also got in on the act, sending a letter to the Chino Hills City Council in August 2016 informing that body’s members that unspecified Hispanic residents of Chino Hills had complained of polarized voting in the community.
MALDEF attorney Matthew Barragen demanded that Chino Hills dispense with its at-large election system that had been in place since the city’s inception in 1991. Barragan maintained the at-large election system in Chino Hills interfered with Latino voters electing candidates that they favor. Barragan called upon the city council to adopt a resolution converting Chino Hills’ election process into one involving wards, threatening forthcoming legal action if the city council did not do just that.
The City of Chino Hills, which currently and formerly had Hispanics on its city council, responded by adopting an electoral map that meets the letter of the California Voting Rights Act but which created districts that actually make it less likely that a Latino or Latina will be elected to the city council. That is because Hispanics do not comprise anything approaching a plurality in Chino Hills. Moreover, the demographic distribution of the population in Chino Hills is such that constructing a Latino majority or plurality district would require an extraordinary feat of gerrymandering. While Hispanics in Chino Hills significantly outnumber the black population, 28.9 percent to 4.2 percent, Latinos are simultaneously outnumbered by both the white and Asian population in the city. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in Chino Hills in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the Asian descent population stands at 31.8 percent and the white population at 50.7 percent. The district map drawn up and ratified by the city council in June provides for five districts, in all of which there is either a white or Asian-extraction plurality.
While many city officials and residents in cities where racially polarized voting has been alleged have denied those charges and expressed umbrage at the suggestion that there is systemic or institutionalized racial bias built into their political establishments, in recent years most have not resisted being forced into adopting ward systems. That is because a handful of California cities that resisted challenges made to their election systems under the California Voting Rights Act were unsuccessful in their legal defenses and were forced by the courts to pay substantial amounts to cover those legal fees.
The California Voter Rights Act confers a significant advantage upon plaintiffs using it to allege what is termed racially-polarized voting, such that even if the challenge does not succeed a plaintiff is not required to pay the prevailing city’s legal fees. Conversely, a city which fails to vindicate itself in the face of such a challenge must pay the legal fees of the prevailing party.
Twentynine Palms was recently served with a letter saying it was in violation of the California Voters Rights Act. If the city does not comply with a notice of intent to form electoral districts within 90 days, according to the letter, legal action will ensue.
The city has hired a demographer to determine its racial/ethnic mix. Council members will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, October 24 for their regularly scheduled meeting, at which they will consider action with regard to changing city council elections from at-large to district based.
The most recent demographic information on Twentynine Palms available to the Sentinel dates from 2012. It shows that 67.05 percent of the city’s population is white; the black or African-American population is 9.26 percent; the American Indian and Alaskan native population is 1.26 percent; the Asian population is 6.85 percent; and the Hispanic population is 21.83 percent.
Twentynine Palms is next scheduled to have a municipal election in November 2018, at which point the council posts now held by Dan Mintz, John Cole and McArthur Wright will be up for election.
Mark Gutglueck

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