KINGSBURG – Since 43 percent of Kingsburg’s population is Latino, lawyers with a law firm in Malibu say 43 percent of its City Council should reflect that.
Shenkman & Hughes’ lawyer Kevin I. Shenkman filed a letter with the city of Kingsburg on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in November 2017. In it, he details how Kingsburg’s at-large election system of voting in its City Council members is violating the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
“Voting rights advocates have targeted ‘at-large’ election schemes for decades, because they often result in ‘vote dilution,’ or the impairment of minority groups’ ability to elect their preferred candidates or influence the outcome of elections, which occurs when the electorate votes in a racially polarized manner,” the letter states.
According to Census data, Kingsburg is 43 percent Latino and 35 percent of the town’s eligible voters. Since 2000, two Latino candidates have sought a seat on the City Council but were not successful. In his letter, Shenkman calls the absence of Latinos on the City Council as “outwardly disturbing” and “fundamentally hostile towards the Latino population.”
Mayor Michelle Roman said it would have been easier to accept the change to district elections if the issue was raised by local residents. In order to comply with the state’s voting laws however, the council will make the change.
“Right now, [residents] can talk with all five of us instead of just calling their one councilmember. It’s just too bad this [change to district elections] didn’t come from a citizen, then we could take it seriously and run with it. It’s a little different when it’s coming from somewhere else,” Roman said. “In any case, we’re moving forward with it. We’ll definitely draw districts that are beneficial to the voters and the City of Kingsburg.”
During its March 7 meeting, Council voted to hire National Demographics Corporation to aid them through the process. The agency’s Vice President Justin Levitt shared a PowerPoint via teleconference which included a map showing where Latinos are concentrated in Kingsburg.
Levitt explained that The California Voting Act requires that elections take place by district where only residents of that district vote for their council member.
So far, at least 165 school districts, 28 community college districts, more than 80 cities, 10 water districts, other special districts and one county board of supervisors have made the change, he said.
When cities have gone to trial to fight the change, they’ve lost. For example, Palmdale spent $4.7 million in a settlement and another $2 million on its defense, Levitt said.
“We use it for Congress, members of the Assembly, County Board of Supervisors and I know we worked with Kingsburg in 2011 to form the high school and elementary school districts,” he said.
Kingsburg has a population of 11,382 people. Thus, each district will have an estimated 2,275 people each. Of those, roughly 1,200 are registered voters.
In creating the districts, Levitt said there are federal criteria the city must follow such as having equal numbers of people in each district and considerations for race and communities of interest. While race will be a factor, Levitt said, it cannot be the predominate reason for drawing boundaries.
“What is considered are communities of interest and protected classes to see whether we can avoid diluting that communities’ vote.”
Communities of interest are defined as neighborhoods with shared interests such as school attendance areas, or areas created by major dividing lines as major roads, freeways or canals. Also shared demographic characteristics such as income or education will be considered, he said.
“Even small towns have different neighborhoods within them that look a little bit different or have different concerns because of how a development project affects a particular street or block.”
At times communities of interest, such as Kingsburg’s downtown area, may want to be divided so each Council member has an interest in it, Levitt said.
After the U.S. Census is taken in 2020, Levitt said maps may be redrawn to take into consideration new population data.
“Each council member must live in one of those districts and they will be voted on by people only in that district,” he said. “It’s not merely that they live in that district, but only the voters living in that district will elect that City Council member.”
Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Blayney since four of the current Council members live within a block of each other, there’s likely to be a major upheaval on the council.
“A number of us have been on the Council for an extended period of time, and some of us have run unopposed previously. There’s a concern for the continuity of office and of the City continuing down the path that’s been forged,” Blayney said.
City Manager Alex Henderson said he’d hope a sense of division could be avoided as he’s heard comments from residents about the west side of town of the city versus the east side.
“When you guys sit up there, there’s a sense of decisions being made that are community wide,” he said addressing the Council. “For example, when we decide what roads are going to be replaced, we don’t consider where the council lives.”
Levitt said he will create a draft map with five districts and then start taking public comment at an April 18 meeting.
Citizens will also be able to give input at meetings on March 21, May 2 and May 5. A map-drawing tool will be made available to the public. The city has a 90-day deadline to make the change.