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Judge Orders City to Use Plaintiffs' Map for Special Council Election


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January 2, 2019 -- The judge in a voting rights lawsuit against the City on Wednesday ordered a special election under the seven districts proposed by the plaintiffs.

The order came during a nearly hour-long hearing requested by the plaintiffs to clarify the court's amended tentative ruling on December 14 that barred any elections under Santa Monica's current at-large system.

In the ruling, Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos ordered that all future City Council elections be district-based "in accordance with the map attached hereto" ("Judge Bars Elections Under Santa Monica's Current At-Large System," December 14, 2018).

The attached map only depicted the Pico Neighborhood District, one of seven districts drawn by demographer David Ely in a map submitted by the plaintifs.

District map proposed by plaintiffs
District map proposed by plaintiffs in voting rights case (Courtesy of attorneys for the plaintiffs)

At Wednesday's hearing, Palazuelos initially asked that the City to embark on a process to draft a map showing the six remaining districts drawn with the public's input, according to Kevin Shenkman, the plaintiff's lead attorney.

The City, as it had on December 14, agreed to undertake the task after it had exhausted all its appeals, Shenkman said.

The judge then ordered the City to use the map the plaintiffs had submitted to hold a special election for all seven council seats ("Plaintiffs in Voting Rights Suit Propose District Map, April Election," November 20, 2018).

Shenkman welcomed the judge's decision.

"We are pleased with the court's decision to replace the City’s at-large election system with the remedial seven-district map developed by renowned districting expert, David Ely, and to do so promptly through a special election for all seven council seats," he said in a statement.

"We remain disappointed that the City continues to prevent the people from having input into the precise district boundaries, and instead left that task for the Court."

The plaintiffs will now submit a statement of decision to the judge, who will make any necessary changes, Shenkman said.

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Defendants have 15 days to object, he said. After the plaintiffs respond the court will enter a final judgment.

Asked what would happen if he City fails to comply, Shenkman said, "As in all things in life, when you don't do something that the court ordered, there will be consequences."

In a statement Wednesday, City Attorney Lane Dilg said, “We are deeply concerned by the change in the court’s tentative ruling this morning.

"Latino-preferred candidates have been elected the vast majority of the time under the City’s at-large election system, and no court has ever ordered a City with similar demographics to move to a district-based system.

"Moreover," Dilg said, "evidence at trial showed that the plaintiffs’ proposed seven-district map was drawn behind closed doors by a hired expert for the plaintiffs with input from only a small number of residents and would likely diminish rather than enhance Latino/a voting power in Santa Monica.

"The City believes its election system complies with all laws. If a final judicial decision determines otherwise, then districts should be drawn with the broad community participation required by the California Elections Code.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, Oscar de la Torre, a leader of the Pico Neighborhood Association, which is a plaintiff in the case, said an appeal by the City would be a huge waste of taxpayer money.

"The gross mismanagement of public dollars on this case should be a major concern for our residents and considering that no City has ever been successful in defending itself from a CVRA (California Voting Rights Act) claim makes this case the biggest deliberate waste of tax dollars in our City's history.

"Our City," de la Torre said, "should have received sound legal advice and this will require that our City Attorney be elected by the residents instead of being controlled by an establishment more concerned with maintaining their privilege and position at any cost."

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