29 Palms & Yucca Valley Use Voting Suit Threat To Draw Incumbent-Friendly Wards

San Bernardino County’s two incorporated communities lying along California State Route 62 have become the latest to move to adopt electoral ward representation systems. Both the City of Twentynine Palms and the Town of Yucca Valley have divided themselves into five separate districts, from each of which a member of the city or town council will be elected.
Though Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley were forced into making the change from their historical policy of electing their political leadership in at-large elections by threats of legal action from activist groups and law firms which said they were seeking the change to empower the Latino population within each of the jurisdictions, the end result is that neither has created electoral maps that are likely to ensure that so-called protected minorities will be enfranchised in the political process. Rather, the change effectuated enhances the prospect that the current set of incumbents will be reelected during forseeable upcoming election cycles.
Both Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley were included in the rash of San Bernardino County’s cities being threatened with legal action if demands that future city council elections be changed from at-large to district-based are not met. While officials with both municipalities made a display of knuckling under to that pressure, they simultaneously manipulated the circumstance to benefit themselves.
Previously, Chino Hills, Chino, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Highland and Redlands moved to change their election systems to create wards which can only be represented by those living within them. By the same token each ward carries with it a residency requirement by which only those living within the ward can vote for that particular confine’s leadership.
Highland was the first San Bernardino County city served with a demand that it alter the way it elects its council members. A subsequent lawsuit was filed July 18, 2014 in San Bernardino Superior Court by a Lancaster-based lawyer, R. Rex Parris, 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. When the matter went to trial, despite making a finding that the socioeconomic-based rationale presented by the plaintiff’s attorneys to support the need for ward elections was irrelevant and that the plaintiff’s assertion 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 in Southern California, noting the cities “rel[ied] 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.
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 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.
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.
While city after city – Highland, Chino Hills, Chino, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana and Redlands – have complied with the demands for shifts to ward systems, with each succeeding capitulation public officials are getting more sophisticated and creatively resistant.
The City of Chino Hills, which currently and formerly had Hispanics on its city council, responded to MALDEF and Barragan 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.
After Twentynine Palms last year was served with a letter from attorney Kevin Shenkman saying it was in violation of the California Voters Rights Act and that if it did not comply with a notice of intent to form electoral districts within 90 days that legal action would ensue, it took its cue from Chino Hills and went through the motions. The city hired a demographer to determine its racial/ethnic mix. Based upon that study and the guidance of City Attorney A. Patrick Munoz, who is himself Hispanic, the city finessed the issue, settling on a map dividing Twentynine Palms and the Marine base into five districts on February 27. The new political divisions did not create a Hispanic ward, as 20.8 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic, which is more or less evenly distributed throughout the city geographically. The map does, however, ensure that the incumbent members of the council will not need to run against one another. In November, the council positions held by Dan Mintz, John Cole and McArthur Wright will be up for election in separate contests.
Ultimately, Shenkman accepted the city’s map, but filed a $33,000 demand letter that the city cover his expenses. For many, this was seen as an illustration that Shenkman’s goal was not to achieve political empowerment for minorities or Hispanics in particular but was rather a mercenary one.
Last month, the Town of Yucca Valley’s electoral map was approved by the town council, dividing the city into five districts. That districting effort, however, did not result in the creation of a Latino-majority ward. In its ultimate response to Shenkman’s demands, the town took more care in gerrymandering all of the five existing council members into their own districts than in ensuring that one of the districts would be heavily Latino, which in any event would have been difficult to do, since according to the 2010 census, the Hispanic population in Yucca Valley was 3,679 persons, or 17.8 percent of its 20,700 total residents. The best the demographers and mapmakers could do was to create one district in which 29 percent of the residents are Hispanic.
While the challenge of protecting the incumbent council members under the new voting system was a daunting one given that three of the members live relatively close together in what is considered to be the town’s most affluent section, a bit of creative map drawing cured that problem. What appears to be a completely gratuities zigzag in the map bifurcates the area known as Sky Harbor, putting the town’s current mayor, Rick Denison, and current councilman and former Mayor Robert Lombardo in separate districts. Had the uneven line not been laid into the map, Denison, whose term ends this year, would have very likely been challenged by Lombardo, whose term does not end until 2020. If Lombardo were in Denison’s district and did not run against him this year, then he would have been allowed to remain on the council until 2020, but would have not been eligible to run again until the seat Denison will run for later this year is up for reelection again in 2020.
Indeed, each of the districts approved host one incumbent member of the council.
Shenkman made some rumbling to the effect that the city’s drawing of the ward map so that the future candidacies of the current crop of city officeholders did not threaten the candidacies of their colleagues violated the California Constitution, which maintains that incumbency cannot be used as a criterion in drawing political jurisdictions.
But to ward off Shenkman, the city retained another attorney, Marguerite Leoni. According to Leoni, the portion of the state Constitution Shenkman cited applies only to state and federal legislative districts and not city council districts or those for other local office.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken [and] repeated over and over again that … avoiding contests between incumbents is a classic, well-recognized district[ing] consideration,” she said. She said the local electorate has already expressed a preference for those holding office and that it is the council’s purview to honor the electorate’s past choice. “Your community elected you and this process is not intended to put you out of office,” she asserted.
One rather unique feature of the Yucca Valley electoral map is that each of the districts, in addition to encompassing an area in which roughly one fifth of the city’s current 21,800 residents live, contains a portion of Highway 62, also known as the 29 Palms Highway, the town’s main drag and most commercialized area. Thus, each ward contains a fair portion of the town’s business entities.
Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply