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Solvang moves toward by-district elections after legal challenge

Solvang moves toward by-district elections after legal challenge

From the May 15 recap: Solvang news you may have missed this week series
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The City of Solvang took its first step Monday toward changing its at-large elections to a by-district system after a Malibu-based law firm claimed Solvang’s system excluded Latinos “from meaningful participation in the City’s governance” and threatened to sue.

City Council members voted 4-0, with Council Member Chris Djernaes abstaining, to draft a resolution that opens the door to district mapping.

Under California law, the city has 45 days to pass the ordinance, then 90 days to run two public hearings, draw up district maps, and hold at least two additional public hearings on the proposed maps before adopting the system.

As a charter city, Solvang’s mayor would continue to be voted on by the population at large while the four council members would each represent a given district defined by the mapping process. The districts do not have to be defined geographically.

“I have zero problem with district elections. That’s fine. If that’s what we want to do, that’s fine. I just wish we would have done it two years ago because the state came down with it and I think it should have been handled sooner,” said Mayor Pro Tem Robert Clarke.

The move came after the city received a letter from Kevin Shenkman representing the Southwest Voter Education Project and its unidentified members in the city of Solvang.

“He demanded that the city change from its racially biased voting system of at-large voting to a district- based voting system,” City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt said.

According to the League of California Cities, the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 which expanded upon the 1965 Federal Voting Rights Act, lowered the threshold required to established a voting rights violation. A protected class does not have to be geographically compact and proof of intent to discriminate is not required. The act also removed the “totality of circumstances” as to why preferred candidates of the protected class lost elections.

“It makes it almost impossible for a city to defend a districtwide election system and it creates financial incentives for plaintiff’s attorneys because if they are successful … then the city must pay their attorney’s fees plus you would pay the cost of defending the suit,” Wullbrandt said.

In his letter, Shenkman noted voting right 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 City of Solvang’s at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a ‘protected class’) - to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of the City’s council elections,” he wrote.

Shenkman claims that, as of the 2010 Census, Latinos composed 29.2% of the city’s population but that Latinos have not been represented on the council.

“The contrast between the significant Latino proportion of the electorate and the historical underrepresentation of Latinos to be elected to the Solvang City Council is outwardly disturbing and fundamentally hostile towards participation from members of this protected class,” he wrote.

The letter claims Latino residents “feel marginalized, and have historically been excluded from meaningful participation in the City’s governance.”

He noted Justin Rodriguez applied to fill a vacancy on the council but was passed over for the appointment of a non-Hispanic white candidate “thus maintaining the complete homogeneity of the council and further discouraging potential Latino candidates.”

Rodriguez was among 11 candidates for the position left vacant when Council Member Ryan Toussaint was elected mayor. That seat ultimately was filled by Planning Commissioner Daniel Johnson in January 2018.

The letter also referred to Briana Bana’s 2016 failed election in spite of “significant support” from the city’s Latino community.

“This election evidences vote dilution which is directly attributable to the City’s unlawful at-large election system,” Shenkman wrote.

The letter did not address demographics nor electoral history related to any other race and failed to note that Joan Laird Jamieson sat on the City Council for seven years. During her unsuccessful 2018 re-election campaign, Jamieson proudly and publicly identified herself as “a seventh-generation Californio,” a Hispanic person native to California.

Given the timing of the letter, Solvang will not be able to complete the process in time for the July 13 filing date for the November citywide election, but failing to take action could result in costly attorney fees and litigation.

“This is just a racket and this makes me ill,” Clarke said.

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