Morongo Unified School District Going To Ward System Elections

Without public discussion, the Morongo Unified School District Board of Education Tuesday voted 4-1, with board member Chris Proudfoot dissenting, to transition the district into one represented by trustees elected from each of five wards within the district’s 1,300-square mile expanse rather than by board members elected at-large.
The district, like a number of governmental entities in San Bernardino County and Southern California, capitulated in the face of threats from a relatively small cadre of attorneys insinuating they will take legal action under the auspices of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
In the case of the Morongo Unified School District, it was attorney Kevin Shenkman, of the Malibu-based law firm Shenkman & Hughes, who said he would sue based on his assertion that what is termed racially polarized voting has occurred in district elections, resulting in a dearth of ethnic minority members serving on the school board.
Other lawyers, firms or entities that have engaged in these demands are Lancaster-based R. Rex Parris, the Los Angeles-based Law Office of Milton C. Grimes and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, known by its acronym MALDEF.
At-large elections are ones in which everyone living within a certain political jurisdiction – such as a city, county, school district, fire district, college district, water district, etc. – can vote for all of the elected members of the panel – the council or board – that represents that particular governmental entity. Ward elections are ones in which the jurisdiction is divided into subareas and the members of the elected panel representing the jurisdiction are elected by their fellow citizens living within the subarea where they reside. In ward systems, a voter can only vote with regard to those candidates seeking to represent the subarea in which the voter resides. Panel members can only represent the subarea, or ward, in which they reside.
A core group of voting rights advocates contend that at-large election systems have a tendency to result in racially polarized voting and minority vote dilution, by which members of the ethnic majority tend to be successful in getting elected to the exclusion of ethnic minorities. They maintain that in jurisdictions where few or no ethnic minorities have been elected, that alone is evidence of racially polarized voting. As such, they assert, those jurisdictions’ at-large elections are violative of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
The California Voter Rights Act confers a significant advantage upon plaintiffs using it to allege racially-polarized voting, such that if the court challenge does not succeed, a plaintiff is not required to pay the prevailing governmental entity’s legal fees. Conversely, a governmental jurisdiction which fails to vindicate itself in the face of such a challenge must pay the legal fees of the prevailing party.
No cities have prevailed in their efforts to resist the legal challenges of their at-large systems, and in many of those cases have had to fork over substantial amounts of legal fees to the attorneys for the prevailing parties. In San Bernardino County, Highland was one of those cities which suffered a heavy monetary loss in trying to vindicate its traditional at-large voting system. Accordingly, other county cities threatened under the California Voting Rights Act – Chino Hills, Chino, Fontana, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands and most recently Twentynine Palms – have moved to ward system elections.
Refusing to dispute accusations of racially polarized voting and simply complying with the demand to switch to a ward-based electoral system is called the safe harbor defense.
Using a provision of California’s open public meeting law known colloquially as the Brown Act, which normally requires that all governing board actions take place in the open but does allow a governing board to meet in private to discuss ongoing, pending or threatened litigation, the Morongo Unified School District Board of Education held a special meeting on November 7, adjourning shortly after convening into a closed session, discussed in private for approximately an hour the gist of Shenkman’s threat to take the district to court over its electoral procedure. The board then convened publicly and voted 4 to 1 to show the white flag of surrender. The motion to initiate the process toward establishing trustee areas – i.e., wards – for future elections was made by Michael Chlebik, who referred to the ploy as “the safe harbor route.” His motion was seconded by Denise Cohen. Board president Hilary Slotta was not physically present at the meeting, but rather in Alabama. She nevertheless participated in the meeting telephonically. Chlebik, Cohen, Slotta and Karalee Hargrove voted to pass the resolution. Proudfoot inveighed against the change, saying a ward system would hinder true democracy and dilute the votes of typical voters.
The board called for an effort to arrive at an electoral map for the 8,200-student, 980-employee district specifying its wards and ward boundaries by next February. That will include holding public meetings, workshops and hearing to get district voter input. The goal is to have the system in place by the November 2018 election.
Mark Gutglueck

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