Council considers move to district-based elections

The city of Claremont may be moving to district-based elections in the future.

The council voted unanimously to explore district-based elections, saying it is a way to pre-empt a challenge from voting rights groups that could lead to Claremont getting sued for violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

District-based elections—where a councilmember or candidate lives in and represents a certain part of the city—are nothing new, and many nearby cities such as Pomona, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga and Duarte have implemented them.

But this would be the first time Claremont is grappling with the change, since it has always had at-large elections—where candidates from any part of town can run to represent the entire city.

District-based elections have been touted as a way to give minority groups a larger voice in the election process and a means to creating more ethnically diverse governing bodies.

Alan Fenstermacher of Rutan & Tucker, in his presentation to the council, noted that since the voting rights act was passed 15 years ago, cities across the state have received demand letters from groups to conform to district-based elections.

“The city’s situation here is a little different,” Mr. Fenstermacher said. “Claremont hasn’t received a demand letter. But this item is being brought forth now in an attempt to be proactive and save the city money.”

Once a demand letter is received, a city is on the hook for up to $30,000 in legal fees automatically, and potentially more if a city decided to fight it. Mr. Fenstermacher painted a grim picture of cities that have tried to fight the change—Santa Monica, Santa Clara, Palmdale and Modesto—and lost, making them liable for millions of dollars in attorney’s fees.

“Not a single city that has ever fought a CVRA claim has won,” Mr. Fenstermacher said.

Under the resolution, for a fee of $60,000, the city would contract with demographer Douglas Johnson, who would study Claremont’s standing under the CVRA, advise the city on risks, and draft a map of five proposed districts. The resolution also provides a 90-day “safe harbor,” which staves off challenges from voting rights groups, Mr. Fenstermacher said.

The city council and the public will have several opportunities to provide input. The first two hearings, on January 8 and January 17, 2019, will provide an overview of the process and gather public input.

The third and fourth hearings, scheduled for February 4 and February 12, will take public comment on the draft district maps and proposed elections, the city said. The fifth hearing would introduce the ordinance for first reading to the council, and a second reading would be set for February 26.

Two former Claremont mayors, Peter Yao and Karen Rosenthal, took different approaches to the idea. Mr. Yao, who now serves on the California Redistricting Commission, said the change could be a way to protect democracy and get more people out to vote.

“Don’t look at this as something that is imposed on you, it’s something that we’re way behind the power curve, and we need to do it,” he said.

Ms. Rosenthal said she wasn’t taking a stand on this particular proposal, but claimed that the CVRA has been “hijacked” by lawyers who she says are extorting cities for money. She did note, however, that district elections could lead to conflicts within a city. 

“I believe district elections contribute to individual fiefdoms, tribalism and increasing conflicts between neighborhoods rather than acting for the whole community,” she said. “And this could be read about in papers all over the country, including in some of our local cities.”

Jennifer Stark, Jed Leano and Ed Reece, who as future councilmembers will tackle this issue in the coming months, also weighed in. Ms. Stark called for an open-minded and positive approach, and said the new election system “could build new ties of collaboration.”

Mr. Leano said the resolution should be adopted specifically to see if there are current CVRA violations unearthed by the demographer. If so, he said, the city should correct it. Mr. Reece called districting “not the Claremont way,” but saw it as an opportunity for the council to better understand the needs of different districts and collaborate to achieve common goals.

Under the districting plan, if the council calls for an election in one of the newly-elected councilmembers districts in 2020, that councilmember could run for a “safe seat,” Mr. Fenstermacher explained. If they win, their term would be extended to 2024. If they lose, they would only serve through the remainder of their first term or 2022.

Ultimately, it would be at the council’s discretion to determine which districts would be included in the 2020 election, he said. Mr. Fenstermacher also noted that by law the map would have to be redrawn again after 2020 due to the nationwide census.

Mayor Pro Tem Corey Calaycay said the key consideration for him is the financial challenges the city would face if they did try to fight it. He hoped that whatever comes out of this plan, it would be for the good of Claremont.

“We are very lucky to live in this community, it’s a beautiful community,” he said. “I don’t need the community divided into districts to know that I appreciate and care for all of my residents here, regardless of sometimes our differences.”

Mayor Opanyi Nasiali said he agreed with the spirit of the CVRA, but lamented the way it’s being implemented.

“I acknowledge the importance of what the law was meant to do. Being a minority myself, the law was meant to help me,” he said. “But this is not the way I want to be helped, by spending the community’s resources to fight a legal system that is, in my view, flawed in the way it is being implemented.”

The council voted 5-0 to appropriate $60,000 for the demographer to launch the process of establishing district-based elections in Claremont.

—Matthew Bramlett


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