City council votes to adopt new election process
Paso Robles City Council voted unanimously to comply with the California Voting Rights Act
—The future of elections in Paso Robles will be district-based, starting by the year 2020. The council adopted a resolution to initiate change for a district-based election with a unanimous vote after the city received a letter from Kevin Shenkman and Hughes Law Firm on Aug. 13. The letter from Shenkman claims that the city allegedly violated the California Voting Rights Act. (See attached photos below of letter.)
Paso Robles was accused of marginalizing Latino voters in a letter sent by lawyer Kevin Shenkman, who wrote, “Paso Robles’ ‘at-large’ system deletes the ability of Latinos a protected class to elect of their choice or influence the outcomes of process canceled elections.” Across the state, Shenkman has threatened lawsuits to other cities who don’t change their election systems.
“I am totally against this change,” local woman Barbara Hart Radisavljevic commented, “The entire city is affected by the actions of the council no matter who their council representative might be, for example, merchants with businesses downtown do not all live in the same districts, but they have similar interests. As things stand now, the electorate as a whole can keep all council members accountable to do what’s best for the city as a whole. Dividing into districts makes it easier to gerrymander the districts so that those with a specific agenda will find it easier to take control of the entire city.”
There was potential for sizable attorneys fees if the city didn’t switch over to by-district elections, according to Paso Robles City attorney, Iris Yang. She shared, “There is a lot of work to be done, and the city needs to look at the demographics, as well as proposed various different types of districts, including several public hearings and meetings for mapping.” Some council members and the public worried that it might create more divisiveness. City attorney Iris Yang stated, “I found it interesting that Latino members of the public felt that they had always been heard by members of the city council in Paso Robles.”
Latinos make up more than 40-percent of the City’s population in Paso Robles. If lawyers can prove minority voters tend to vote together and have different voting preferences than white voters or other majorities, the law calls for district voting.
State lawmakers reacted last year to protect cities from hefty legal bills and ensured the time needed to take steps to avoid lawsuits. A new law allows cities 135 days to switch to district elections. The limit of $30,000 is the maximum cities must reimburse for attorneys fees or other groups that challenge their election system. The costs of changing the election process are estimated to be around $30,000. So far, dozens of cities in California have changed to district elections from citywide elections, to avoid the costs of a lawsuit (which can cost millions of dollars.) No city has yet to successfully defend itself from one of these legal challenges and every city has incurred significant legal fees, up to $4 million. Under State law, plaintiffs in these cases are able to get legal fees from cities they sue.
The next step in the process towards implementing by-district elections includes the mapping and demographics study, and several public hearings. By 2020, Paso Robles will be in compliance with the California Voter Rights act.