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Santa Monica Facing Lawsuit Over At-Large Council Elections
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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

April 13, 2016 -- A group of residents of Santa Monica's Pico Neighborhood sued the City on Tuesday, claiming its at-large elections system intentionally stymies candidates from the community from winning representation on the five-member City Council.

The Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA); Maria Loya, a Latina activist and Pico Neighborhood resident, and Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS) filed the lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court.

They want Santa Monica to follow in the path of a growing number of cities that have either adopted or, as in the case of Palmdale last year, been forced by the courts to transition to district-based elections.

Kevin Shenkman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the City will be served with a claim within the next few days. Santa Monica will have 30 days after receiving the claim to respond, otherwise the lawsuit goes forward.

The City Attorney's Office did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

Adopted in 1946 as part of its city charter, Santa Monica's at-large elections lets voters across the City vote for all seats up for election.

But the system violates the California Voting Rights Act by dilluting the votes of the City's Latinos, said Shenkman, who has sued several cities under the act.

“Santa Monica's at-large elections were adopted to intentionally disenfranchise” Pico Neighborhood residents, said the Malibu-based attorney. “It was adopted in 1946, but it doesn't matter when an intentional racist act occurs, it's invalid.”

The charter's provisions “prevents not only the City but also the Santa Monica-Malibu School District from adopting district-based elections,” said Roui Israel, president of Advocates for Malibu Public Schools.

“We want the school board to be empowered to voluntarily adopt fair elections and set an example for the students,” he said.

The plaintiffs allege that a City report commissioned in 1992 concluded that Santa Monica's leaders in 1946 adopted at-large elections intentionally “to keep minority residents living in the southern portion of the City from achieving representation.”

“The current at-large election system is illegal and has led to a lack of representation in local government, which in turn has led to neglect of our community,” said Loya, who has run unsuccessfully for City Council.

“All residents and every neighborhood can benefit from a neighborhood-centered approach to representative democracy.”

PNA officials and Pico Neighborhood residents sent a letter to the City in December denouncing its election rules and urging it to adopt district voting ("Pico Residents to Demand Santa Monica Dump At-Large Voting", December 15, 2015).

Shenkman has sued other cities and school districts with large Latino populations and at-large election systems, including Santa Clarita, Highland and Palmdale. In the Palmdale case, a court last May ordered the city to switch to voting districts and also to pay millions in legal fees.

In other citie, including Hemet, Buena Park and Wildomar, Shenkman has written to officials about their at-large elections and they have complied and adopted district voting rather than risk being sued.

Santa Monica has so far ignored the Pico Neighborhood residents' concerns about their lack of Council representation, Shenkman said.

“We sent letters out recently, a little after we sent a letter to Santa Monica, to the other cities and they've all changed their elections,” said Shenkman. “We expected some response from Santa Monica, but it's been four months.”

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