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Parties in Voting Rights Suit Duel Over District Mapping

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By Jorge Casuso

January 9, 2020 -- One thing is certain in the voting rights case against the City currently before a California Appeals Court: The regularly scheduled November election will be held.

The big question is: If a district election is mandated, who will draw the lines?

The court has granted the City's request to render an expedited ruling by July 10 ("Appeals Court Grants City's Request to Expedite Voting Rights Case," May 7, 2019).

That gives the City "certainty regarding the election process for the November 2020 election," said Constance Farrell, the City's spokesperson.

"How we proceed following the court of appeal’s ruling," she added, "will depend on that ruling."

If the Appeals Court overturns the lower court ruling that found the City's at-large system deliberately discriminates against Latino voters, an election would be held as usual.

But if it affirms the ruling by Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos, two different scenarios could unfold ("Plaintiffs Win Voting Rights Suit Against the City of Santa Monica," November 13, 2018).

The three-judge appeals panel could let stand Palazuelos order that the City use a map submitted by the plaintiffs.

Or it could grant the City's request to hold a public-hearing process resulting in a new map.

"If the court of appeal agrees," Farrell told the Lookout, "we would proceed with the public districting process as quickly as possible."

The goal, she said, would be to have "districts in place in time for the November 2020 Council election."

In its opening brief filed October 18, the City argues that Palazuelos decision ordering the City to use a district map submitted by the plaintiffs is "in direct conflict with the Elections Code."

The Elections Code, the City contends, "mandates that a public entity switching to districts propose a districting plan after soliciting broad public input through a series of mandatory hearings.

"There is no dispute here that respondents’ expert’s districting plan, adopted by the trial court, did not follow this democratic process."

The process required by the Elections Code calls for "a series of at least four public hearings," Farrell said.

"Any districting plan should be designed through an inclusive, democratic process, subject to judicial review and approval," she said.

In their responding brief filed December 27, the plaintiffs countered that the appellant "refused to engage in that process, despite being given several opportunities to do so" ("City Says No Remedy Needed in Voting Rights Case," December 3, 2018).

"Faced with a petulant defendant, the Superior Court did precisely what the (state voting rights act) commands and the federal courts have held is the court’s responsibility -- the court fashioned a remedial plan," lead attorney Kevin Shenkman wrote.

The City has an opportunity to respond when it files its final brief before each side is given 30 minutes to present oral arguments in the case.

City officials said they are prepared to use the plaintiffs' map if the Appeals Court affirms Palazuelos' decision.

"If the court of appeal affirms the trial court’s ruling in its entirety, this would mandate elections under the seven-district plan created by plaintiffs’ expert, and we would proceed with the November 2020 election on that basis."

What map is ultimately used could have a major impact on the race.

The plaintiff's map -- which was drawn by demographer David Ely -- carves the 8.3-square-mile city of some 92,000 into seven districts with approximately 13,000 residents each ("Proposed Santa Monica Council Map Places Three Incumbents in One District," November 26, 2018).

The map places two Council members -- Mayor Kevin McKeown and Sue Himmelrich -- in the same North of Montana District, and another two Councilmembers -- Gleam Davis and Ted Winterer -- in the Ocean Park District.

Davis recently sold her North of Montana home and moved to a condo she bought in Ocean Park.

The plaintiffs' map also leaves three districts without current representation.

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