Council holds first hearing on district-based elections

Claremont is on its way toward district-based elections, after the city council voted unanimously Tuesday to embark on a 90-day process of drawing up a district map.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first of several public hearings and workshops to gather input from residents about the city’s impending transition to district-based elections. District-based elections work by mapping out five or more areas in a city, whereby each section is represented by a councilmember.

The process has been part of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) since it was passed in 2001, but recently many California cities have been making the switch under the threat of lawsuits.

Claremont hasn’t been sued yet, but is trying to circumvent any kind of payment by going forward with the districting process before anything happens. Just getting a letter from an attorney informing them they are in violation of the CVRA can cost the city $30,000, according to Alan Fenstermacher of Rutan & Tucker.

Tuesday’s council session was the first with new councilmembers Jennifer Stark, Jed Leano and Ed Reece.

Mr. Leano asked if having a racially diverse council, as Claremont currently has, protects a city from a lawsuit. No, said Mr. Fenstermacher—adding that just the existence or perceived existence of racially polarized voting in a jurisdiction is grounds for a suit.

The University of Chicago Law Review states that racially polarized voting happens when, “the political preferences of majority-race and minority-race voters diverge substantially, and the racial majority votes with enough cohesion to usually defeat the minority’s candidates of choice.”

Douglas Johnson of the National Demographics Corporation noted that some degree of polarized voting exists in virtually every jurisdiction.

“Unless all the ethnic groups are the same age, the same education levels, the same types of employment and have been in the same town the same amount of time, there’s going to be different voting patterns,” he said.

Some cities have tried and failed to keep their election at-large. Palmdale and Modesto mounted challenges to the CVRA and lost, relinquishing millions of dollars in attorney’s fees in the process, Mr. Johnson said.

In fact, Mr. Fenstermacher added, every city that has challenged the CVRA and went to trial has lost, painting a bleak picture if Claremont were to ever mount a challenge. He noted it was unusual for a city to begin the transition before a demand letter was sent, but it’s only because such a letter would be inevitable.

“The worst advice we can give is to fight this type of action,” he said.

In his presentation, Mr. Johnson cited several examples of Southern California cities that have taken different approaches to establishing districts. Compton, for example, has its districts in quadrants; South Pasadena has latitudinal strips to ensure that multiple councilmembers are responsible for the same neighborhoods; and Pasadena made sure that every district contained at least a portion of Old Town, ensuring the entire council would be responsible for its revitalization.

A dozen Claremonters spoke during public comment, with nearly all of them harboring a negative view of the change. Jim Belna warned it could lead to noncompetitive races, canceled elections and fringe candidates gaining seats.

Terry Kennedy remarked that being forced into this process was “depressing.”

“To me, it’s like you’re being threatened to do this,” he said. “If you don’t, you are going to pay a lot of money.”

Jennifer Nesslar, a former Pomona resident, cautioned against creating districts, citing Pomona as an example of where it can go wrong. She claimed that councilmembers there would only focus on constituents in the same political party, and warned the same thing could happen to Claremont.

“That is what districts do. They divide you,” she said, later suggesting the idea of having an at-large mayor along with councilmembers representing districts.

Both Richard Rosenbluth and Sue Schenk suggested expanding the number of districts—and councilmembers—as a way to make sure more residents’ interests would be represented on the council.

Rachel Forester implored the city to take a more positive outlook on the process, citing Pasadena’s example as districting made to serve a constructive purpose.

“It seems that this is not something that we can avoid, so let’s make the most of it, and let’s make sure that we come together as a city and that we move through this as a community,” she said.

In regards to an at-large mayor, Mr. Fenstermacher said the CVRA is defined broadly enough that even cities with a combination of at-large and district elections could be vulnerable to a lawsuit, but the chances would be slimmer.

Councilmember Jennifer Stark noted that moving to districts could be something that invigorates neighborhoods, where multiple people could be running for one spot in a district.

“I think that would be thrilling and wonderful and bring a lot more people to the table,” she said.

Councilmember Larry Schroeder shared similar sentiments, noting that districts could result in more candidates from south Claremont, where there is a larger concentration of Latinos.

“The upside is that we are being forced into an opportunity here,” he said, later noting that he would “keep and open mind” on the idea of expanding the number of councilmembers.

Mr. Leano acknowledged the “overwhelming sensibility” from the public that this was not a popular decision, but said that challenging the CVRA would not be a responsible thing to do. He noted that district elections could fundamentally change how a council race is run, from costs to outreach.

Councilmember Ed Reece, while lamenting the apparent limited opportunity for Claremont to defend itself, nonetheless saw a potential opportunity in by-district elections, and remarked that it would be incumbent on citizens to make sure the council focuses on the entire city once district lines are mapped.

“Just because we go to districts does not mean we have to lose that part of who we are in governing as a whole,” he said.

Mayor Corey Calaycay feels the districting process distracts from other pressing issues in the city, including the police station, and said that there was “no guarantee” that this new process would make things better or worse for Claremont.

He also defended Claremont’s current system of a rotating mayor, noting it builds respect among the council and appreciation for the whole community.

Nevertheless, he opened the idea of an at-large mayor and additional councilmembers, inviting the public to offer viewpoints on those issues before the next public hearing on January 17, where the council will make a final decision.

Residents have several opportunities to create their own district maps, making sure to have roughly 7,000 residents in each of the five districts. residents can also create additional districts if they wish.

Two workshops on Sunday, January 13—one at the Blaisdell Center at 1 p.m. and another at the Hughes Center at 4 p.m.—will allow Claremonters to draw up maps and submit them for consideration. The deadline to submit maps will be January 22.  Residents can also go online to draw their own maps to submit at claremontca.org/districting.

Draft maps will be posted on the Claremont website on January 28.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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