Despite Its Board’s Ethnic Diversity, CVUSD Forced Into Ward Elections To Promote Inclusion

The Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees, which stands as one of the most ethnically/racially diverse elected bodies in San Bernardino County, this week knuckled under to a demand that the district alter its traditional at-large board elections to ones in which trustees are to be elected by ward or sub-district. That threat implied that minority members living within the jurisdiction of the district are not adequately represented on the board.
The threat to sue the district came from Kevin Shenkman of the Malibu-based law firm of Shenkman and Hughes. In 2014, Shenkman sent a similar letter to the City of Highland. Highland responded by agreeing to hold a vote to see if the city’s residents were amenable to making the change to district elections. When the voters rejected the concept, Shenkman and several other lawyers and law firms, including R. Rex Parris, Milton Grimes and Matthew Barragan, proceeded with a lawsuit against Highland, where despite more than 39 percent of the residents of that city being Latino, no Hispanics were serving on the city council. The attorneys used a provision of the California Voters Rights Act to ensure, they maintained, that so-called protected minorities were not disenfranchised in the political process. That provision allowed them to allege that what is referred to as racially or ethnically polarized voting had occurred in certain cities or towns, and to then request that the city or town in question revamp its voting system such that wards or voting districts were created in which the residents of that ward or district would have exclusive voting rights to elect from within that ward or district a representative to the city council. If a city without resistance simply conformed with the request and adopted a by-district voting system, the attorney making the request was then entitled to recover from the city a $45,000 fee for having brought the city into what was characterized as compliance with the goals of the California Voting Rights Act.
If any of those towns or cities resisted the request, the attorney or attorneys representing an individual of standing challenging that particular municipal entity could then file suit under the terms of the California Voting Rights Act, and upon prevailing in demonstrating racially-polarized or ethnically-polarized voting in the city or town had occurred, be eligible to recover the entirety of the legal fees involved in the filing of the action.
In the case of Highland, 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.
Lawyers using the California Voting Rights Act function from a distinct advantage, in that if a lawsuit they file fails and it is determined that racially-polarized or ethnically polarized voting did not occur, the plaintiff is not subject to having to pay the prevailing party’s legal fees.
After their victory over Highland, Parris, Shenkman, Grimes and Barragan, the latter then being a staff attorney representing the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, threatened lawsuits under the California Voter Rights Act against the cities of Barstow, Big Bear Lake, Chino Hills, Chino, Fontana, Hesperia, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands, Twentynine Palms, Upland and Yucaipa, as well as the towns Apple Valley and Yucca Valley. Despite the consideration that Barstow, Chino Hills, Chino and Redlands historically had fielded or at that point included Hispanic members on their city councils and that Upland, Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana historically or at that point had both Latino and African-American members of their city councils, all of those cities and all of those towns, while grumbling that Shenkman, Parris, Grimes, and Barragan were using the law to shake them down, complied with the demands for shifts to district or ward systems, with each of those municipalities paying the lawyers $45,000, an alternative preferable to having to sustain the expense of fighting the matter in court with no prospect of recovering its costs even if it prevailed.
Ironically, in case after case in San Bernardino County, the cities and towns that were forced to adopt district voting or ward maps gerrymandered them in a way that provided the incumbent council members an advantage by placing them into districts that did not include other incumbents, and by timing the elections in such a way that their districts held elections at the end of the electoral cycle terminating with the elapsing of the close of the term the incumbents held as a result of their most recent at-large elections. In none of those cases did Shenkman, Parris, Grimes and Barragan intervene, and the gerrymandering was allowed to proceed. In some of the cases, protected minority representation was lost as a consequence of the redistricting. This is an indication, Shenkman’s, Parris’s, Grimes’ and Barragan’s detractors say, that the lawyers were not in fact interested in ending racially-polarized or ethnically-polarized voting but were rather seeking a $45,000 payday.
The Chino Valley Unified School District Board currently consists of Donald Bridge, Andrew Cruz, Christina Gagnier, James Na and Joe Schaffer. Cruz is Hispanic. Na is ethnically Chinese. The remaining three are Caucasian. Within the last five years, the board had two Latina members, Sylvia Orozco and Irene Hernandez-Blair. While there would have been a substantial likelihood that the district would have prevailed if it had contested the assertion in Hughes’ letter that the district’s at-large election system resulted in minority vote dilution in violation of the California Voting Rights Act, the expense of doing so would have been extensive.
In a report to the board dated March 4, Superintendent Norm Enfield said “to avoid potential legal challenges” he recommended the district “begin the process of establishing trustee areas for elections to the board of education.”
The board voted unanimously along the lines of Enfield’s recommendation.
-Mark Gutglueck

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