GREENFIELD — Greenfield City Council members hosted a workshop meeting March 16 to discuss the incoming changes to the way city elections work.
The city currently uses an at-large election system, in which the entire population votes for the council and mayor, but it is under legal pressure to change to a district system, which divides the council between various zones for only those neighborhoods to vote for.
“I’m not happy with this decision,” said Lance Walker, Greenfield’s mayor. “We’re being forced into it.”
The council voted in December to move ahead with the effort in time for the 2022 election.
“District elections bring government closer to home,” said Councilmember Yanely Martinez. “They will provide a sense of increased awareness between the districts.”
Martinez noted that in her talks with community members, some don’t know the names of councilmembers or when they were elected or where they’re from.
“We are not doing our jobs as elected officials if your community can’t even remember your name,” Martinez said. “We need to be out there participating and engaging the public.”
Walker questioned why the issue hasn’t been brought up in Soledad or Gonzales, and noted the change to district elections in King City has shown problems in the system. Specifically, he cited Carlos Victoria winning a council seat with only six write-in votes in his district.
“District elections do not work in a small town, plain and simple,” Walker said.
City Manager Paul Wood and Assistant City Attorney Travis Cochran noted the meeting was not to debate the merits of a district system, as the city is officially on the path toward implementing the system already. However, the meeting was an informational workshop to go over the purpose and timeline of the process.
Wood went over the history of the different election systems, especially in California as it pertains to the municipal level.
“More recently at-large elections have come to be seen as a device to prevent monitories from electing their preferred candidates,” Wood said.
Wood explained the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the California Voting Rights Act of 2002 were aimed at preventing discriminatory imbalances and practices within the election system.
“This legislation makes all at-large election systems in California, for cities, school districts and special districts, vulnerable to legal attack regardless of whether a majority district can be formed or racial injury exists,” Wood said.
One recent example is the city of Santa Monica, as Councilmember Drew Tipton pointed out, where the alleged discrimination could not be fixed by the creation of districts.
However, as Wood and Cochran explained, almost all agencies that have challenged legal pressure to switch to district elections have lost their cases and faced millions of dollars in legal fees.
Reading from the language of the legal requirements from the CVRA, Wood said the purpose is to prohibit any election method “that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or to influence the outcome of an election.” He summarized it as unfair stacking of one group against another.
“Whether this polarized voting is occurring is determined by looking at past elections,” Wood said. “The prescribed remedy is for the local government to switch to district-based voting … which would define and establish districts within a city or county that would be representative of the people, whether majority or minority, in those districts.”
So far under the CVRA, 142 California cities have switched, in addition to the 29 cities that were already using district elections. In addition, it has caused 240 school districts, one county and 35 special districts to shift.
“In the fall, the City of Greenfield received a letter from LULAC demanding that the city transition to district-based elections,” Cochran said.
The result was the council adopting a resolution of intent to transition to district-based elections by the next election, which would be in 2022.
Cochran noted this motion also protected Greenfield from liability moving forward from CVRA litigation.
“The next steps are to implement those steps to transition to district-based elections,” he said.
The lynchpin in the process is the 2020 Census data, which is needed for a more accurate analysis of demographics within the city. The wait for that data means a delay from the traditional 135-day requirement to have public hearings and put a new system in place.
The Census data was supposed to be released by March 31, but delays might cause the release to happen on Sept. 30.
Martinez questioned the complete accuracy of the Census data. Herself having been a proponent of getting everyone to participate in the Census, she noted, “We did not hit that 100% mark. We could have done better.”
Instead, Greenfield achieved enumeration of an estimated 70% of its population.
Cochran described the next steps as the city hiring a demographer, which would fall mostly within the city manager’s decision with some input from the council. He urged the prompt hiring of a demographer, since all existing district-based agencies would be in need of one to revise their districts after getting the new Census data.
The cost estimate for a demographer ranges between $22,000 and $33,000.
After that, a series of public hearings would take place to review map proposals for the new districts. Once drafted, the maps would undergo a formal approval by the council, which would have to pass an ordinance establishing district elections. Once a follow-up second reading takes place, the city would be fully transitioned to district-based elections.
One point of concern for Walker was the future election of a mayor, as he said the main choice the city has available is five districts with a mayor rotating between districts.
Cochran explained there is legal precedent for cities to have four districts and elect their mayor at-large.
All future movement with the process hinges on the release of the 2020 Census data.
“We are not starting until the 2020 Census data is released,” Cochran said. “It is going to be a fairly quickly moving process once we get going with it.”