Inadvertently, a Malibu-based lawyer has thrown the 52-year-long historical peculiarity of Loma Linda never electing a member of the city council who was not a Seventh Day Adventist into stark relief.
By Mark Gutglueck
The City of Loma Linda will become the 17th municipality in San Bernardino County in the last eight years to transition, under the threat of legal action, to by-district elections to select the members of its city council.
As a consequence of the way in which the Malibu-based attorney who forced Loma Linda to make that change utilized the California Voting Rights Act to bring the city’s political selection process into question, Loma Linda has become the focus of not only the entirety of the State of California but the nation as well over the way in which it has historically engaged in religiously-polarized voting.
Since 2014, Lancaster-based attorney R. Rex Parris, Los Angeles-based lawyer Milton Grimes, Malibu-based barrister Kevin Shenkman and more recently Los Angeles-based solicitor Matthew Barragan and Northern California-based legal practitioner Scott Rafferty have collectively generated for themselves over $7 million in legal fees by exploiting a provision in the California Voting Rights Act that entitles a lawyer seeking to promote so-called protected minority voter empowerment to bill the cities they engage with in that effort. The California Voting Rights Act categorizes a host of ethnicities and races – including African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders among others – as “protected minorities.” By alleging that certain categories of the population are either not participating in the democratic process or are not adequately represented by politicians who share their ethnicity or race, a lawyer can use the California Voting Rights Act to collect legal fees for his or her advocacy of such protected minorities.
Previously, that is prior to 2014, the cities of San Bernardino and Colton were the only municipalities in San Bernardino County which elected their council members under a district or ward system.
By alleging that racially polarized voting had taken place in the cities of Chino Hills, Chino, Upland, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Victorville, Hesperia, Barstow, Highland, Redlands, Big Bear, Yucaipa and Twentynine Palms as well as in the towns Apple Valley and Yucca Valley, Parris, Grimes, Shenkman, Barragan and Rafferty forced, or otherwise got the political leadership in those jurisdictions to agree, to shift to by-district or by-ward elections.
The California Voting Rights Act confers upon the plaintiffs in such cases an overwhelming advantage in that though the plaintiff[s] stand to gain or recover all money they expend in paying for their attorneys’ efforts, the cities or towns sued under the voting rights act are not eligible to recover their fees if they prevail in the litigation by succeeding in demonstrating that racially polarized or ethnically polarized voting has not occurred in their jurisdictions. Thus, the plaintiff[s] and the lawyer[s] representing them in these legal actions brought under the California Voting Rights Act run no risk. On the other side of the plaintiff/defendant divide, the cities or towns challenged in this way have to defray their own legal expenses if they chose to put on a defense at trial. Thus, even if a city prevails, it sustains unrecoverable legal costs, and if it loses, it stands to suffer costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars and perhaps beyond a million dollars in legal fees to be paid to the prevailing party. By the time opportunistic attorneys seeking a major payday through threatened or actual lawsuits under the California Voters Rights Act filed to ostensibly counteract racially-polarized or ethnically-polarized voting turned their attention to San Bernardino County beginning in 2014, a handful of California cities elsewhere that resisted challenges made to their election systems under the California Voting Rights Act had already been unsuccessful in their legal defenses and were forced by the law and the courts to pay substantial amounts to cover those legal fees. In a number of San Bernardino County’s municipalities, city officials and residents where racially polarized voting had been alleged expressed umbrage at that suggestion and denied the assertions that there was a systemic or institutionalized racial or ethnic bias built into their political establishments. Nevertheless, at that time Parris, Shenkman and Grimes surveyed the San Bernardino County landscape and selected what they considered to be the county’s most vulnerable jurisdiction among a handful of cities perceived to have foreclosed minority rights because of the relative scarcity of elected Hispanic office holders locally despite the region’s substantial Latino population.
Thus, Parris, Shenkman and Grimes in 2014 settled upon the City of Highland, where despite more than 39 percent of the residents of that city being Latino, no Hispanics at that time were serving on the city council. Highland thus became the first San Bernardino County city served with a demand that it alter the way it elects its council members. Highland responded by placing an initiative, Measure T, on the ballot asking the city’s voters whether they wanted to switch to by-district elections. When the city’s voters in November 2014 rejected Measure T, with 2,862 votes or 43.01 percent in favor and 3,793, or 56.99 percent opposed, Parris, Shenkman and Grimes proceeded with the lawsuit on behalf of Lisa Garrett, a resident of Highland who claimed to be politically disenfranchised because she was Hispanic.
Upon the matter going 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 Garrett’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. For their efforts, Parris, Shenkman and Grimes experienced a substantial payday.
Thereafter, Parris, Shenkman, Grimes and Matthew Barragan, who was then the staff attorney representing the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund known by the acronym MALDEF, threatened lawsuits under the California Voter Rights Act against the cities of Barstow, Big Bear Lake, Chino, Chino Hills, Hesperia, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands, Twentynine Palms, Upland and Yucaipa, as well as the towns of Apple Valley and Yucca Valley. Later, such demands would be made against the cities of Fontana and Ontario. Another attorney, one based more than 300 miles from San Bernardino County, Walnut Creek-based lawyer Scott Rafferty, next joined the fray, making a demand against Victorville.
A provision of the California Voting Rights Act was that a city hit with a demand that it move to by-ward or by-district voting could seek a “safe harbor” from the ruinous storm of potential litigation and get out from under the accusation that as a community its members had engaged in racially polarized or ethnically polarized voting by simply agreeing to make the voting system transition to wards or districts and paying the attorney making such a challenge a fee of $30,000 to $45,000.
Despite the assumption of many that ward voting systems are a more democratic alternative in the selection of political leaders and the relative advantage those seeking a transition to ward/district systems are given under the California Voting Rights Act notwithstanding, there is yet considerable debate over the issue of the relative merits of the competing ward vs. at-large voting systems, including whether ward and district systems actually facilitate a fairer representation of the minority population.
Front and center in the debate over voting rights is the contention of some voting rights advocates who maintain that ward-based systems can empower minority voters by making it more likely that a minority candidate in a ward that is more heavily laden with minority voters will be elected than if that minority candidate must stand for election in a contest in which all of the voters of the jurisdiction are participating and thus diluting the minority vote. Nevertheless, some political theorists point out that in certain cases, particularly those in which racial or ethnic heterogeneity is evenly spread throughout the community, an election system changeover from at-large elections to ward elections is more likely to result in fewer minorities being elected.
A recurrent objection to the rush toward ward representation is that the rationale for embracing it is spurious. A substantial element of the population out and out rejects the accusation that polarized voting or racism is institutionalized into their communities. They point out that in a majority of the cities targeted for forced acceptance of ward/district voting systems, members of protected minority groups have achieved elected office.
Beyond the issue of extending representation to a single given element of the population, there are arguments presented against ward or district systems based upon the contention that political wards lend themselves to a corruption and bastardization of the political process. The imposition of ward systems, those of this mindset contend, carries with it the potential for creating a set of fiefdoms within a city wherein if not absolute, then near-absolute, power is installed in a single individual within each of those geographical divisions, rendering each such elected official a political boss in effect separately attended by a retinue of political henchmen fiercely loyal to that office holder, who is able to dole out perks and favors at will and empowered to act with utter ruthlessness and efficiency, unchecked by the majority of voters within the city as a whole who must live with the impacts of such depredations. Such historical and ongoing examples of this consist of the political landscapes in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia, and indeed, closer to home, in the City of San Bernardino, where the voters in last month’s election made a rejection of that city’s now-lame duck political boss, Mayor John Valdivia, who established himself initially as the lord of the Third Ward in that city before moving up into the mayor’s position in 2018, from which perch he initially assembled a ruling coalition of ward-elected councilors, only to see that coalition fall apart when actions he managed to take in his capacity as the city’s political boss were engulfed in scandal. Valdivia was rejected by the city’s voters in the June 7 primary election concluded last month, finishing in third place, which precludes him from seeking reelection in the upcoming November general election.
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 complied with the demands for shifts to ward systems. In doing so, those municipalities paid the lawyers that pressed the issue the $30,000-to-$45,000 they were eligible to collect under the California Voters Rights Act and which those attorneys sought for forcing those cities and towns into accepting district/ward voting.
Perhaps the most egregious of the cases in which a city had organically elected protected minority members to its council while using an at-large elective process but was still forced to embrace ward system voting involved the City of Victorville, which in the thirty years between 1991 and 2021, had 20 council members, eight of whom were Latino or Latina and two of whom were African American. Earlier this year, Rafferty, alleging that Victorville had been plagued with racially/ethnically-polarized voting, demanded that the city transition to district elections. Despite Victorville City Attorney Andre deBortnowsky’s insistence that the city had not engaged in racially/ethnically polarized voting, he nevertheless recommended that the city knuckle under and accede to moving to ward system voting as Rafferty was proposing, since even were the city to roll the dice and prevail in resisting the changeover, it would not be able to recoup the legal costs of engaging in that defense, given the terms of the California Voting Rights Act. Moreover, if Rafferty was able to prevail in convincing the court that the city should create voting districts and carry out its city council elections in that fashion, the city would be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal billings made by Rafferty. Thus, Victorville will hold its first by-ward election in November.
Up until this week, six cities in San Bernardino County – Adelanto, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Montclair, Needles and Rialto – had city councils with members elected at large. In May, Shenkman sent the City of Loma Linda a letter alleging the city had engaged in racially polarized voting that had resulted in minority vote dilution, thus violating the California Voting Rights Act. He demanded that the city cure the violation by moving to a by-district voting system for its city council members.
Loma Linda and San Bernardino are the only cities in San Bernardino that hold their elections corresponding with the primary election – alternately, in presidential election years in March and in gubernatorial election years in June. As such, Shenkman’s demand came too late to require that the wards or districts be in place for this year’s contest in Loma Linda, which was won by incumbents Phill Dupper and Ron Dailey last month.
There was an intensive question as to whether the assertions in Shenkman’s letter alleging polarized voting were factual and whether they supported the demand for a transition to district voting. Historically, Loma Linda has elected members of protected minorities to its city councils, as when Charles Umeda, a Japanese American/Asian American, was elected in 1996 and appointed to the council in 2005, and Bhavin Jindal, an Indian American/Asian American, was elected in 2020. Moreover, the protected class Shenkman was referencing – Hispanics – do not reside anywhere within Loma Linda in sufficient concentration to logically justify the creation of districts or wards to ensure the electability of a Latino candidate. Demographic data shows that between 22 percent and 23 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic. That subset of the population, however, is relatively uniformly and evenly distributed throughout the 7.64-square mile, 24,791-population city. Thus, it is unlikely that the city could, without engaging in blatant gerrymandering, be divided into five wards such that one would be constituted by a majority Latino electorate.
Nevertheless, upon receipt of the letter, Loma Linda officials went into an immediate clinch, bringing the curtain down on the matter to prevent any public scrutiny. Despite the public nature of the letter that Shenkman had written to the city, officials at once deemed it to be subject to the confidentiality protections provided for in California Government Code § 54956.9, allowing the council to hold a closed session to confer with, or receive advice from, its legal counsel regarding pending litigation when discussion of the matter in an open public session could potentially prejudice the position of the city in litigating the matter.
Undisclosed to the public was that it was the use of the term “polarized voting” which had thrown Loma Linda city officials into a paroxysm.
While the City of Loma Linda could make a strong argument that it was not engaged currently nor in the past in racially polarized voting, there exists an open-and-shut case that in insular Loma Linda the city has consistently since its 1970 incorporation and without exception engaged in religiously polarized voting. Since 1970, involving 26 elections and over 30 elected officials, there has never been a member of the Loma Linda City Council who was not a Seventh-day Adventist.
Loma Linda is one of several Adventist communities throughout the United States, including Walla Walla, Washington; Battle Creek, Michigan; Berrien Springs, Michigan; Angwin, California; Rapidan, Virginia; Amity, Arkansas; Weimar, California; Takoma Park, Maryland; and South Lancaster, Massachusetts, among others. Adventist communities are typically built around a substantial medical facility coupled with a college, medical school or medical science training facility. The church and its support mechanisms have made substantial investments in those communities and has engaged in much to protect those investments and maintain control over them.
Loma Linda and Loma Linda University Medical Center are a quintessential example of this. As such, Loma Linda is a company town, and the company is the Adventist Church/Adventist Health System. Loma Linda is a charter city. The city charter provides the city council with the authority to engage in issuing bonds on behalf of the city and for that bond financing to be used to build or expand the medical center.
Reportedly, the number of Adventists living among Loma Linda’s residents exceeds fifty percent of the city’s 24,784 population. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has an energetic international outreach/missionary/conversion arm. As such, Loma Linda has become a magnet for large numbers of foreign-born converts, many of whom have become naturalized American citizens. This has made Loma Linda one of the more diverse communities anywhere. Large numbers of those living in Loma Linda are thus protected minorities. This greatly complicates the application of the California Voting Rights Act. Mathematically, given that there are only five members of the Loma Linda City Council, it is impossible to extend representation involving a member of every protected minority class and every subset of a protected minority class residing in Loma Linda to the Loma Linda City Council simultaneously.
Those considerations made Shenkman’s demand letter to the city and its city council highly problematic, such that no matter what the city did, it could not ensure by any action it might take that members of each and all of the city’s protected minorities would attain berths upon the city council. Still, the prospect that Shenkman might leap from his focus on “racially polarized” voting to “religiously polarized” voting was mortifying to city officials. The city, in a series of highly irregular moves, sought to divert attention from the matter. Apparently, the city council engaged in a closed-door discussion of the matter at both its June 14 and June 28 meetings, but no overt mention of the subject matter was provided in the agendas for those meetings. Loma Linda City Clerk Lynette Arreola did not post the agendas for the meetings nor the back-up material for those agendas to the city’s website, nor a copy of Shenkman’s letter nor any documents generated by the city in response to it.
With the public and the Loma Linda community at large in the dark, the council met in closed session on June 28 and voted unanimously to comply with Shenkman’s demand, making arrangements to spend as much as $30,250 to carry out demographic surveys and draw up map configuration options so a city elective district system involving five wards can be created and to pay Shenkman $30,000 under the “safe harbor” provision of the California Voting Rights Act to settle the matter short of going to court. Absolutely no discussion of the matter took place in the city council’s open session.
The hope on the part of Loma Linda officials is that now that the city has “complied” with or is in the process of complying with Shenkman’s demand letter and he has been provided with his 30 pieces of silver, he will simply go away.
After Tuesday night’s meeting, Loma Linda city officials doctored the video of the meeting so that no reference to the council’s action relating to Shenkman’s demand letter is available to the public.
There is some mystery as to whether Shenkman in formulating his demand letter was aware of Loma Linda’s history of religiously polarized voting. He did not use the term “religiously polarized” in making his demand. If he indeed understood the crisis behind closed doors at Loma Linda City Hall he had precipitated with his demand letter, he was able to angle his approach perfectly to ensure that he milked the circumstance for a $30,000 payday.
There comes now a question of whether the way in which the districts or wards to be drawn in Loma Linda will continue to maintain the religiously polarized voting of the past – which seems to be a violation of the California Voting Rights Act in spirit if not as to the letter of the law – even as the city will imperfectly at best seek to comply with the letter of the law in ensuring that racially polarized or ethnically polarized voting does not take place.
The Sentinel, which because of the secrecy by which the City of Loma Linda and its city council dealt with Shenkman’s demand learned of the city’s move toward adopting a district/ward voting system late this week, sought clarification from Shenkman, both by phone and in an email.
The Sentinel asked Shenkman whether, now that he has profited by virtue of the City of Loma Linda’s past peculiarities with regard to that city’s voting patterns, he feels he has a moral responsibility to have Loma Linda live up to the idealized standard of the California Voting Rights Act or as close to that ideal as is possible.
The Sentinel asked Shenkman if he was aware of the religiously polarized voting that took place in Loma Linda historically to this point and if it was his belief, now that the religiously polarized voting that took place in the past has been clearly enunciated, if he believes that Loma Linda is required or should be required to prevent religiously polarized voting in the future.
The Sentinel asked Shenkman if at this point an effort is under way to prevent religiously polarized voting from taking place in Loma Linda in the future and what he was personally doing to prevent religiously polarized voting from taking place in Loma Linda going forward.
The Sentinel asked Shenkman how, in practical terms, religiously polarized voting can be prevented from taking place in Loma Linda and what the efforts to prevent religiously polarized voting from taking place in Loma Linda are to consist of.
The Sentinel sought from Shenkman whether he believes the community of Loma Linda, or any community for that matter, is at liberty to show favoritism toward one particular religious sect in terms of electing members of that sect to local political office if the community collectively does so in a way that is openly disclosed and codified into the local municipality’s laws and charter.
Corollarily, the Sentinel asked Shenkman if in his view the community of Loma Linda, or any community, is at liberty to elect as its political representatives members of any one particular ethnicity or race if the members of that community collectively deem those politicians qualified to represent them.
Shenkman was asked to formulate a response to those who have suggested that he failed to sufficiently research ahead of time and thereby properly inform himself of the entirety of the circumstances relating to polarized voting of all sorts that took place in the community of Loma Linda before he penned his demand letter.
Shenkman was asked if, had he known of the religiously polarized voting that took place in Loma Linda historically prior to writing his demand letter, whether he would have proceeded differently in writing the letter.
Shenkman was asked what his response would be to those who now say that he is shirking his responsibility – since he took it upon himself to raise with his demand letter the issue of racially polarized voting in Loma Linda – to redress the issue of religiously polarized voting in Loma Linda, as well.
By press time, Shenkman had not responded to the Sentinel’s inquiry.