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Eyes on 11 Whistleblower

Santa Monica Council Votes to Appeal Voting Rights Ruling

Bob Kronovetrealty
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Santa Monica Convention and Visitors

By Jorge Casuso

February 21, 2019 -- The City Council on Thursday unanimously voted to appeal a Superior Court ruling last week that found Santa Monica's at large election system discriminates against Latino voters.

The vote comes eight days after Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos ordered the City to hold a district-based election on July 2 for all seven Council seats.

She also prohibited Council members not elected under districts from serving after August 15 ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 16, 2019).

"The filing of an appeal should automatically stay, or hold in abeyance, the trial court’s orders pending review by the court of appeal," City Attorney Lane Dilg said.

The quick roll call vote came after a one-hour closed session meeting with legal counsel that followed public testimony where most speakers opposed an appeal.

The City, Dilg said before the vote, "has contested many of the positions taken by the plaintiffs" ("City Says No Remedy Needed in Voting Rights Case," December 3, 2018).

She then outlined the key points made by the defense -- that the plaintiffs failed to present evidence that the City's at-large election system has led to polarized voting or diluted Latino votes.

That two-thirds of the City's Latinos live outside the election district carved to increase their power. And that switching to district elections would decrease, not increase, the chances of Latinos being elected.

The Council voted without comment after hearing testimony from more than a dozen speakers, most of whom urged the City not to fight what they viewed as a losing battle.

"Prevailing in an appeal will be harder than prevailing in the lawsuit," said Maryanne LaGuardia, an attorney who has lived in Santa Monica for more than 30 years.

"As my mother used to say, 'When you're in a hole, stop digging,'" LaGuardia said.

Other speakers noted that no other California City has won a CVRA lawsuit and that almost all have voluntarily opted to adopt district elections when challenged.

"Twenty other jurisdictions have caved in," said Stan Epstein, a real estate attorney. "They were given legal advice (telling them) they have no case."

Others said the money the City has paid the high-powered law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher could be better spent on City services.

City finance officials have estimated the bill was nearly $5 million in 2017, before the case went to trial. ("City of Santa Monica Enters Second Year of Fight Against Voting Rights Lawsuit," April 19, 2018).

The City is "throwing good money after bad," said neighborhood activist Zina Josephs.

The money, she said, is needed to repair fire trucks that are out of commission and hire police officers and traffic engineers.

Santa Monica resident Robert Gomez said a City worker told him there was no money to fix the potholes in his alley.

"How do you reach out to residents and say you don't have money and do this," he said referring to an appeal.

Aremen Melkonians, who heads Residocracy, predicted the Council would ignore what the speakers had to say.

"The reality is that this public input means nothing," he said. "It's time to stop spending money to protect your own seats."

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