The Paso Robles City Council reluctantly took a step toward establishing by-district elections after a law firm sent a letter threatening litigation if the city didn't make its election process more equitable to minorities.
At the Sept. 25 City Council meeting, the council approved a resolution expressing the city's intention to make the change and appropriating $60,000 for costs.
The city received a letter on Aug. 13 from the Kevin Shenkman and Hughes law firm alleging that the city's at-large electoral system violates the California Voting Rights Act. The state law expands on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, creating a path for minority groups to prove that their votes are diluted in at-large elections. The lawyer threatened to sue if the city chooses not to change its elections.
City Councilmember John Hamon said the litigation threat is a way for the lawyer to get money out of the city, because whether the city wins or loses, it would have to pay for the plaintiff's legal fees.
"This lawyer has nothing to do with diversity. I think he could care less about that. It's about his using the state courts and their opinion findings that they want this to happen in all cities and this guy is taking advantage of cities," Hamon said.
Paso council members are currently voted for in citywide elections. A district-based system would divide the city into districts, each with a representative who resides in the district and is chosen by the voters who also reside in that particular district.
City Attorney Iris Yang said that the letter cites the Senate Bill 54 (sanctuary state bill) discussion that took place at the May 3 council meeting as evidence of the city allegedly violating the California Voting Rights Act.
"It really points to one side of the discussion because as the council may recall, there was two nights of very rigorous discussion on both sides of that issue," Yang said.
The letter stated the May 3 discussion provided a forum for comments about an "illegal alien invasion."
"Once the public concluded, not a single council member admonished the racist sentiments or expressed solidarity with the immigrant population of Paso Robles," the letter stated. "Rather, they emphasized the flaws of the law and ceded that it was not their business to oppose it."
Yang said that no city has successfully defended itself from one of these legal challenges, and every city has incurred significant legal fees of up to $4 million.
How the city will establish and implement a by-district election process will be discussed over the course of several public hearings. Δ