SELMA – A senior consultant with National Demographics did not mince words in warning Selma’s City Council of the legal and financial risks of not complying with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
“The California Voting Rights Act took the federal law and lowered the bar so it made it easier to sue a city and prove that a city had an election system that impaired the ability of a protected class group to elect candidates of its choice,” Shalice Tilton said.
Her comments came during a special Council meeting Aug. 12.
In the discussion, Mayor Scott Robertson said he thinks the results of the 2018 elections should be considered as the new districts are drawn up.
“People voted in the people in office right now to want the representation. I wouldn’t want to lose the reputation with these people that the public already voted [in]. I want there to be fairness when we do the districting. I think we can achieve that.”
Councilman Jim Avalos said he, too, wanted to be fair to current sitting council members.
“We want to be fair in our city government to our elected officials that are up here right now,” he said. “We’ve got to find ways to make it fair for the people who are up to continuing to serve, and yet be fair in our boundaries to make it right for the citizens of Selma.”
Avalos also compared their situation to Kingsburg’s as that city already switched to district elections. He lamented that experienced council members there could no longer serve as several council members lived near each other.
“There were three [council members] altogether and unfortunately when you lose experience in leadership in government, [you lose] veterans or people who understand how to open doors in other geographical areas in government. It’s a challenge.”
In Selma, the Council members all live within a quarter-mile of each other. Moving to district elections will mean eventually only one from that area would be able to keep serving on the Council. That is, unless they move to another area of town or if the district lines are drawn in such a way as to put the council members in different districts, despite the fact they all live in the northeast portion of town.
The mayor’s term, Avalos’ term and Mayor Pro Tem Louis Franco’s term all expire in 2020. Councilmembers Sarah Guerra and John Trujillo’s terms expire in 2022.
Selma’s Council voted 5-0 at a previous meeting to move to district elections, rather than the current at-large system. An effort is underway however to overturn the 3-2 vote about having four districts and a mayor-at-large position.
“We got a lot of citizens talking about the 3-2 vote on mayor at large,” Selma resident, and the mayor’s wife, Rose Robertson said during public comment. “If possible, [City Manager] Teresa Gallavan, could you come to the next meeting and put it on record? Is it 10 percent of the population to override the 3-2 vote? Legit citizen signatures? If so, could you bring that back to the next meeting?”
City attorney Bianca Sparks Rojas warned at the July 15 Council meeting that unless Selma votes for its Council through five districts, it would not meet the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) requirements.
“If the Council does choose to form four council districts and one at-large … we are not protected under the Voters Rights Act because we wouldn’t have completely districted elections. We’d have a combination, and still be open to a letter that would trigger another 90 days to move forward to going to five districts. We’d be responsible for attorney’s fees up to $30,000.”
If the Council stops proceeding with the district election process, any Selma voter in the protected class - Latino - could sue the City and ask that their legal fees be reimbursed. Thus, the potential of $30,000 in legal fees.
The law reads in part:
“The CVRA provides that a voter who is a member of a protected class may bring an action in superior court to enforce the provisions of the CVRA, and, if the voter prevails in the case, he or she may be awarded reasonable litigation costs and attorney’s fees. The CVRA requires a court to implement appropriate remedies, including the imposition of district-based elections, that are tailored to remedy a violation of the act.”
The handful of residents present for the Aug. 12 meeting said they preferred the idea that all portions of town have representation on the Council.
Selma resident Theresa Salas said she looked at major streets in town and then drew lines when she created a map so that areas around Adventist Hospital, the barrio, the west side behind Selma High, the northwest area, and the east side would each become a district.
“All the council people are on the east side of town. There’s nobody on the west side. There’s nobody in the barrio,” Salas said. “You do want consistency and the experience of the incumbents and their perspective they’ve already earned, [but] when you look at the map, there’s nobody in the barrio, there’s nobody behind the high school or that end of town at all.”
Salas said while the Council may take all of Selma into consideration as they vote, they don’t live in different areas of town to see the daily needs of each area first-hand on a daily basis. This also makes them less available to residents to hear their concerns, she said.
“Other cities have ‘my councilman’ and [a person] to go to when they have a problem in their area because [their councilman] lives three doors down. They know what’s going on. Whether you’ve lived there in the past or have relatives living there, you’re not living there now. So, the day-to-day stuff may not be seen by you.”
Robertson said he wants the districts drawn to take into consideration results of the 2018 elections.
“I think it’s more than just because of staying in office. It’s because that’s what the voters voted for. To reflect the will of the voters.”
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The California Voting Rights Act was signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis on July 9, 2002. It expanded voting rights granted under the Federal Voting Rights Act which has been in place since 1965.
Salas argued that the entire idea behind the California Voting Rights Act is to ensure council members live throughout a city to give each section representation.
“It may not seem like it’s fair to you guys, but I want my representative to live in my area of town [so I can] go two streets over and say, ‘hey, we’re having this issue over here.’ They’re probably aware of it because they live in that area. I understand that Jim [Avalos] would like to [draw] those lines so you all stay in office, but it’s probably not going to be possible because you’re concentrated on the east side of town.”
Selma resident Joe Alvarez said that since the City will likely expand, it made sense to have representation from the different parts of town.
“As the city keeps on growing, we want to make sure we involve everybody and there’s somebody representing you and your neighborhood, or the section that you you’re in,” he said.
Robertson said he was concerned that future council members would think of just their segment of town as they made decisions.
“I read over and over that the danger is people get too tied in to representing their own district without having the interest of the City at large at heart, too. People can start doing and it can become five people against each other.”
This Aug. 12 meeting was the second in a series that were held to first educate the public and get input on how to create districts for all future elections.
There were only a handful of residents present. Councilmen Louis Franco and John Trujillo asked whether future meetings would be held in other parts of town to get more participation, or if more would be done to publicize them.
City Manager Teresa Gallavan said all the meetings were scheduled to be held at Council Chambers but that more information could be posted on the City’s website, on social media, and advertised on bulletin boards and local media.
Other cities and districts in California have fought changing to the new district elections process, but have paid hefty legal fees in doing so.
The demographer said they’d just learned that Santa Monica was being asked to cover $22 million in attorney’s fees in addition to paying for their own lawyers to fight districting.
“It’s very difficult to win one of these lawsuits. No city has prevailed. Every city has either voluntarily, after a settlement, changed their election system or a judge has required them to change their election system,” Tilton said.
Here’s a timeline of the districting process for Selma:
- Aug. 5 and 12: Tilton took initial input from Council members and residents.
- Aug. 19: Residents presented their district map suggestions through email or in person at City Hall.
- Aug. 26: Suggested maps posted on City website for viewing.
- Sept. 3 and Sept. 16: Maps discussed, revised and election sequencing discussed.
- Sept. 30: Final map posted seven days prior to its adoption.
- Oct. 7: The final hearing and map adoption.
- 2020, 2021: Census taken and once new data is released, districts will be adjusted accordingly.
Tilton said their agency will present three to four map options where all the districts touch Downtown Selma, an option where they don’t, and a map that has multiple districts crossing the freeway. Another option will have a “dominant district on the west side of the freeway,” she said.
A decision will also need to be made about which three districts would be elected first in the 2020 elections and which two districts would be elected in the 2022 election cycle.
Tilton said their agency will include demographic data for each district in various categories to determine if communities of interest are being represented.
“For example, [in the Census data] you can see residents’ housing status. Are more people renting, or do they own their own home? Are there multiple or single-family dwellings? It will include their immigration status, languages spoken at home, education level, average age and previous voter turnout.”
Each of the five districts must contain approximately 4,744 people. For future City Council elections, only residents that live in each district will vote for a candidate who also must reside in their district.
Tilton said race can be one factor in deciding districts, but not the predominant one. Instead, districts need to be based on communities of interest as determined by such factors as school attendance areas, major streets, or areas of town with a particular interest - such as the Downtown area.
Another factor will be the number of people that are of voting age of 18 and older. Courts will look at this category of citizen voting age population to determine the strength of each district and make sure the Council is “not diluting the voting strength of your protected class groups,” she said.
“Protected class groups, in this case, are based on minority language.”
In the past, election materials have not been made available in Spanish or other languages.
“That’s why the Latino group is considered a protected class group for purposes of the California Voting Rights Act and the Federal Voting Act.”